Shubert Theater, NYC - June 2000
Review by John Kenrick
You can keep your lion puppets, recycled dance routines and pseudo-ballets the best musical on Broadway in the year 2000 is still Chicago. A return visit found this production at least as exciting than ever, and in some ways even better than when it opened four years ago.
It is customary to say the original 1976 production never got the success it deserved because it had the bad luck to open in the wake of A Chorus Line, but that is only a partial truth. Bob Fosse's multiple layers of dark cynicism made the original hard to swallow despite stellar performances by Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. When I saw that production as a mere teenager, I admired Fosse's genius but kept wondering how one could fully enjoy a show that never stopped sneering.
The 1996 revival is clearly a homage to Fosse's choreographic style, but it allows the material to make its points in a more straightforward manner. It also does a better job of honoring the show's vaudeville structure, with each number doing its damnedest to stop the show. At a point when most productions look tired, this one kept a midweek audience cheering its heads off for song after song.
TV's Sharon Lawrence (NYPD Blue) is a musical comedy knockout as Velma, singing and dancing with polish and genuine comic flair. Belle Calaway a longtime understudy to the stars who plays her first Broadway lead here is sensational as Roxie, giving the role some Verdon-esque touches but clearly making the role her own.
I think Brent Barrett is one of the best singers Broadway has ever known, and his dazzling good looks make him a perfect choice for the role of Billy Flynn. He takes the endless high note at the end of "We Both Reached for the Gun" so effortlessly that leaves the audience roaring. Marcia Lewis, a favorite of mine since her days in cabaret, is still knocking 'em dead as Mama Morton, and R. Bean is easily the best Mary Sunshine I've ever seen people were genuinely shocked when Mary's secret was revealed, something this reviewer has never seen happen before.
Special kudos to P.J. Benjamin, a longtime favorite of mine who won the audience's heart as Amos his "Mr. Cellophane" stopped the show. The current ensemble literally drips with sex appeal, keeping Ann Reinking's Fosse-style choreography as steamy as can be. "All That Jazz" sizzled, and "The Cell Block Tango" (which I have always loved) was electrifying. John Kander and Fred Ebb's sensational score has never sounded better, and the book's takes on crime, fame and justice are more potent than ever in the post-OJ age.
I left the Shubert with the kind of musical theater high that buffs so rarely get anymore. Odds are this showtune junkie will be back in the months to come. Full price, half price or any price, this is the real thing Broadway gold. So "slick your hair and wear your buckle shoes" and get thee to Chicago!