When you are coming to your feet to applaud at evening’s end, don’t be surprised if you feel you’ve been had.
Garbed in tight black outfits, sculpted bodies move in and out of shafts of top light. Employing isolated, precision dance moves, those lithe figures enact scandalous crimes from The Roaring Twenties.
Backdropped by a Jazz Age band, characters of the underworld slink through a space that is both then and now.
It is world where staccato drum beats substitute for machine guns, feather fan dances frame sleazy shysters, and murder is an opportunity for song and fame.
And what songs it has.
From Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly seducing the audience at the outset with the stop-you-in-your-tracks opening number “All That Jazz” to Jacob Keith Watson breaking your heart as cuckolded husband Amos Hart in the song “Mister Cellophane,” the show’s music and verve exist in three separate times: The Twenties of its inspiration, The Seventies of its conception and the present day with its almost pathological obsession with celebrities.
Like I said, it’s Bob Fosse’s “Chicago.” In all its subersive, cynical and sexual glory. Or at least that’s what it should be.
Yes, the music and lyrics are by Kander and Ebb, and Broadway luminary Ann Reinking conceived the choreography for this particular production. But in its larcenous soul, the vaudeville styled tale of murderess Roxie Hart (a calculatingly ditzy Bianca Marroquín) and her attorney Billy Flynn (a charm gliding John O’Hurley) summons the ghost of the man who conceived it long ago.
The 1975 brainchild of the celebrated director/choreographer and his former wife Gwen Verdon, the current incarnation of the show springs from a 1996 revival that proved more popular than the initial production and bestowed the multitude of Tony Awards upon the show that “A Chorus Line” had initially denied it.
It arrives in New Orleans as the longest running revival ever, still running on Broadway in fact, an example of a show that found its time.
And perhaps, it arrives after that time has passed.
For you see, “Chicago,” just like many of Disney’s touring theatrical offerings, has transformed more into pure product than commercial art. There is small difference between the two, but that distinction is crucial.
And it can be seen throughout this production. Too often, the evening, not without its share of inspired moments, feels a paint-by-numbers execution lacking the accusatory edge that made it downright uncomfortable in its earlier manifestations.
It has all the predictability of a high-end chain restaurant. It all arrives right on time and delivers exactly what you expect. Even a late moment that is framed by the line “not everything is what it seems” is enjoyable precisely because it is exactly what we saw coming.
Roz Ryan as Matron “Mama” Morton lustily charms the front row with “When You’re Good to Mama,” O’Hurley and Marroquín technically wow with the ventriloquist inspired “We Both Reached for the Gun,” and MacCleod and Ryan bring the house to peals of laughter with “Class.”
And, yes, “Cell Block Tango” turns the engine over on the evening.
But nothing is left to chance, no bit feels genuinely fresh, and there isn’t an ounce of substantive danger to be found. Unlike long ago when the material felt scandalous or more recently when the audiences finally got the joke, there is nothing in this production that feels relevant, insightful, or groundbreaking.
Maybe that is how it supposed to be. After all, the original production struggled to find the right audience, only saved when Liza Minnelli stepped in to give it a boost. It was only when the times caught up with it at century’s end that the show became the monster it is today.
I will admit that, by the time the second act arrived and the winning numbers, gags, and visual confidence games began to accumulate, I found myself won over to the skills of the gifted cast and their growing enjoyment of the audience in attendance.
I was pleasantly charmed and delighted.
I am just not sure charmed and delighted is what Bob Fosse intended.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.