Full of ironic tributes to the way show business manipulates audiences, the musical "Chicago" features a great Kander & Ebb score that turns some of the most entrenched Broadway cliches inside out. When the cynical, greedy defense lawyer Billy Flynn sings that all he cares about is love, or self-obsessed murderesses Roxie and Velma croon that they are their own best friends, the mock sincerity of the lyrics is perfectly matched by the mordant parody of the music. How desperately we all crave razzle-dazzle in our lives, and how ingeniously this show musicalizes the consequences of that craving.
Unfortunately, the leads in the touring production of "Chicago" that opened a three-week run on Thursday at the Pantages Theatre serve Kander & Ebb very badly indeed. If the show ultimately declares that celebrity can help you get away with murder, it also helps film star Patrick Swayze get away with an anemically undersung performance as Billy. Swayze can swagger convincingly and dance a step or two, here and there, with his vaunted skill. But he doesn't always get his laughs, hit his notes or justify the current Hollywood philosophy that anyone can do musicals -- on the stage, anyway.
Reva Rice's Velma also seems curiously underpowered. Dancing Ann Reinking's Fosse-esque choreography as restaged by Gary Chryst, she snaps from one position to another with the same hard-edged exactitude as the very feisty ensemble but never dominates the group, never holds the spotlight. Her singing, too, can't make her showstoppers memorable.
With Bianca Marroquin as Roxie, the issue becomes more complex. Her singing remains as small-scaled as Rice's, so the duets (particularly "Nowadays") go nowhere. But her voice -- halfway between Gwen Verdon's (the original Roxie) and Betty Boop's -- at least proves more distinctive. And as an actress and dancer she projects so many facets of the role, especially the opportunities for physical comedy, with so much originality and energy that you're hooked.
Tour after tour, cast after cast, this show has grown tougher and colder, so just about everyone at the Pantages exudes nonstop nastiness except Ray Bokhour as Amos (Roxie's husband) and Carol Woods, who seems to find the venal Matron sympathetic despite all the evidence to the contrary.
With no real vocal competition in the cast, Woods turns her character's lurid anthem, "When You're Good to Mama," into the powerhouse indulgence you've been waiting for. Only the women prisoners' "Cell Block Tango" raises the roof more thrillingly.
As for Bokhour, his job is to play against all the furious hustle of the show and appear almost Zen-like in his nebbishness. Mission accomplished with flair so understated that the tiniest moves in his "Mister Cellophane" solo have unexpected impact.
Playing Chicago press doyenne Mary Sunshine, the protean R. Bean marshals enough soprano excess to make "A Little Bit of Good" properly fulsome and also becomes a comic conduit for the audience's infatuation with Swayze.
Directed by Walter Bobbie and based on the version presented in the New York City Center's Encores! series, "Chicago" places the band onstage, and never has this prominence seemed more fitting than at the beginning of Act 2, when conductor Vincent Fanuele leads a spectacular jazz assault on the score.
This "Chicago" company may not have the lead singers it needs, but its heart is in the right place, and whenever acting, dancing or music-making takes precedence, its bold vision of American cupidity still sings, all by itself.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Ends: Jan. 25
Contact: (213) 365-3500
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Bianca Marroquin...Roxie Hart
Reva Rice...Velma Kelly
Ray Bokhour...Amos Hart
Carol Woods...Matron "Mama" Morton
Patrick Swayze...Billy Flynn
R. Bean...Mary Sunshine
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Music By John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Scenic design John Lee Beatty. Costume design William Ivey Long. Lighting design Ken Billington. Sound design Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations Ralph Burns. Supervising music director Rob Fisher. Music director Vincent Fanuele. Original choreography Bob Fosse. Original choreography for this staging Ann Reinking. Re-creation of choreography Gary Chryst. Technical supervisor Arthur Siccardi. Company manager Hilary Hamilton. Production stage manager Eric Insko.