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The Gang's All Here

MOSCOW — A SURE SIGN OF THE times comes with the sight of Moscow's grand old Theater Estrada in a snowfall. As you cross the Old Stone Bridge, trying to avoid the crash-and-burn from black ice underfoot, you'll see barges tied to docks along the frozen Moscow River beneath you, the Kremlin walls to the left, and, straight ahead, the theater's impressive façade punctuated by a billboard rimmed with flashing lights and the blazing, neon script: Chicago.

Kander and Ebb's mockery of an American justice system in the '30s, dominated by thugs and a capricious, celebrity-
obsessed press, not only rings painfully true here, it's Moscow's one remaining Broadway-style musical since Chechnyan terrorists shuttered the city's other musical, Nord Ost, last year.

Security is tighter at the theater than at Sheremetyevo Airport, with every patron frisked and swept with metal detectors. The aftermath of the hostage crisis has had a daunting effect. On a Friday night, the balcony was half-empty — in earlier days, this would have been inconceivable for a city slowly getting acquainted with, and starting to relish, American musicals.

In a snappy Russian translation by Alexander Karpov and Andrei Morsin, the production is dominated by what Muscovites seem to regard as their most valuable national asset — pop stars. In fact, the mega-celebrity husband-and-wife team of Alla Pugachyova and Filipp Kirkorov has co-produced the effort with an all-Russian cast and an all-American production team, with Kirkorov himself playing Billy Flynn.

Unfortunately, despite the ensemble's pristine dance and vocal skills, and Scott Faris' hyperactive staging, Moscow's Chicago looks like a vanity production, with actors showing off their steps and thighs rather than yielding to the musical's innate Brechtian sneer. Backed up by a terrific onstage band, Anastasia Stotskaya's Roxie Hart is sexy and pugnacious enough, but she never lets us forget for a moment how hard she's working.

Chicago is supposed to beat with an icy heart, but here, because of the competition between the performers and the musical, there's no heart at all — though this may be an unwitting commentary on the city itself.

There's also no shortage of irony provided by the theater's context: Onstage, as Roxie offers to fellate Billy in partial exchange for her legal fees, the proscenium wall serves as a banner for the artfully preserved Russian inscription: "To the glory of the great Soviet people."

CHICAGO | Lyrics by FRED EBB | Music by JOHN KANDER | Choreography by GARY CHRYST, based on choreography by BOB FOSSE | At THEATER ESTRADA, 20/2 Bersenyovskaya Naberezhnaya, Moscow | Plays indefinitely