Crime Still Pays

Alarming as the re-emergence of Seventies clothing and musical styles might be, one of that period's most influential musicals, Chicago, resonates well with modern audiences. That's because society has finally fulfilled late director/choreographer/auteur Bob Fosse's prescient observation that Americans, egged on by an unscrupulous media, deify certain classes of criminals--especially celebrities.

Now on stage at the Buell Theatre in a touring production directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Fosse protege Ann Reinking, Chicago is an enjoyable, toe-tapping evening of silky songs, sexy dances and occasionally comic vignettes. And even though a few of the dance sequences (as well as a couple of pivotal portrayals) are in need of some Fosse-inspired verve, a talented cast manages to place its collective imprint on what remains a captivating, relevant musical.

Based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago was written in 1975 by Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb. It tells the story of two infamous criminals, Velma Kelly (Stephanie Pope) and Roxie Hart (Belle Calaway), who each, in their own way, manage to win the sympathies of the public. In Roxie's case, her growing legions of fans are whipped into a frenzy by the showgirl's ability to cleverly manipulate a rumormongering press; Velma's followers, on the other hand, simply can't resist the scintillating vixen's powers of seduction. And when both wind up as inmates in Chicago's Cook County Jail, the prison's matron, "Mama" Morton (Lea Delaria), seizes her chance to put the two together in an unbeatable, unstoppable song-and-dance act. To that end, Mama persuades slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Alan Thicke) to take Roxie's case before a sympathetic magistrate. With the help of a Betty Boop-ish reporter, Mary Sunshine (D.C. Levine), who's a media queen in more ways than one, Flynn manages to work his razzle-dazzle in the 1920s gangster-ridden town where "murder is a form of entertainment."

The star of any Fosse show is the choreography itself, and while Reinking hasn't eliminated Fosse's overtly sexy moves and gyrations, she has softened a few of his trademark angular moves. It's a decision that seems in keeping with a world grown callous to celebrity killings and media feeding frenzies--and with a production that today seems more mainstream than it does risque or avant-garde.

That said, a prodigiously talented company of dancers, led by the leggy Pope and a muscular Gregory Butler, execute the show's routines with virtuosic precision (audience members seated thirty rows from the stage swooned in response to their every move). In fact, the musical's opening number, "All That Jazz," was flawlessly delivered on opening night, as was Pope's second-act song, "When Velma Takes the Stand."

Pope delivers an artful, sometimes dazzling portrayal of the sassy vamp. More than any other performer in the company, she captures Fosse's out-front presentational style while remaining a completely believable character throughout. It's a consummate performance that's nicely complemented by Michael Tucci's amusing portrait of Amos, Roxie's long-suffering mate who, in the song "Mr. Cellophane," ruefully admits that he's no Mr. Personality. And Delaria is a delightfully clownish mixture of oily press agent and tough-talking confidante.

To his credit, veteran television performer Thicke is an engaging performer with a flair for nightclub-style entertainment. In his first few scenes, Thicke employs a smooth, laid-back delivery that sometimes grinds this notoriously bouncy musical to a halt. But midway through the evening, he manages to get in step with his colleagues, as does Calaway, who falters somewhat in the first act but reaches her character's zenith when she teams up with Pope in the latter half of the evening. When the two deliver the show's finale, "Hot Honey Rag" (with Fosse's original choreography intact), they nearly bring down the house.

All in all, Fosse's humorous jabs at society's self-absorbed egomaniacs ring just as true today as they did twenty years ago. But in the wake of recent events in the news--more O.J., anyone?--the raucous laughter that once greeted Fosse's sardonic commentary on America's judicial system and the press has been replaced by uncomfortable moments that, ironically enough, echo with silence.

Chicago, through June 14 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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Jim Lillie