& BOB FOSSE
135 N. Grand Ave.,
Through July 5
There are moments when Chicago, at the Ahmanson Theater, is so dazzling it invites comparison to great theater — comparisons that scrape away at its luster. Viewing it is something akin to staring for a couple of hours at the popping of a flashbulb. You’re left first with a kind of halo in front of your eyes, then with a few green spots, then, at last, with a sense of having been stupefied instead of touched.
But that same sense comes with so many hit musicals. Raising even the slightest objection to this one — a touring version of last year’s multiple-Tony-Award-winning revival — feels a bit like pissing in the face of breathless reviews and standing ovations, of a scheduled transfer to the Shubert Theater following this Ahmanson engagement. (A different touring production will perform simultaneously in Orange County.) Even one of my colleagues at the Weekly – a career skeptic — keeps bursting into my office, arms akimbo, hands fluttering, chanting the musical’s signature tune, “Razzle Dazzle,” in an enthusiastic whisper.
The sequential commercial successes of Rent and Chicago reflect the curious gluttony of the national theater marketplace: Rent satisfied the craving for quarts of syrup; Chicago appeals to an equally urgent compulsion to vomit it all up. Rent, which opened the Ahmanson’s current season, was a goopily earnest expression of love among a community of pure-hearted, AIDS-stricken bohemians living in Alphabet City — lofty people, in all senses of the word. Chicago will have none of that Puccini-inspired gush; it jeers at principled “suckers,” revels in duplicity and greed, and ultimately celebrates an adulteress who gets away with murder after her shyster lawyer manipulates a sentimental jury and a gullible press. Chicago is balm for the jaded, an anti-romantic fantasy.
Michael Greif’s staging of Rent splish-splashed all over the rafters. Walter Bobbie’s direction of Chicago confines the actors to a few square feet of floor space around an onstage bandstand. Rent was all bright colors and exotic tribal garb. Chicago is black on black (costumes by William Ivey Long), all strip-club lingerie: leather and lace, bras and panties — a visual concept lifted from Tony Walton’s evocative Art Deco painting of 1920s burlesque dancers. Both musicals have made buckets of money by tapping into these opposed ventricles of the American heart.
Chicago’s history contains a vein of ironies almost as blistering as the musical itself. Actress Gwen Verdon’s initial attempts to secure rights to a 1926 play — also named Chicago — were snubbed by its author, Maurine Dallas Watkins, who, having become a born-again Christian, insisted that her own play had glamorized sordid behavior and moral degeneracy. (Upon Watkins’ death in 1969, her estate released the rights to Verdon, her choreographer husband, Bob Fosse, and producer Richard Fryer.)
In a play, of course, the distinction between what’s intended as an endorsement of certain values, and what’s interpreted as a critique of them, lies largely in the eye of the beholder, in shades of irony. Still, after Fosse invited Fred Ebb to assist with the book and lyrics, and John Kander to supply the music, there emerged a couple of scenes over which Watkins is surely still spinning in her grave.
In one, a reporter named Mary Sunshine (here played in drag by M.E. Spencer) — a precursor to Barbara Walters — hoots a ditty, ostensibly to honor the “little bit of good” in everyone, with a hysterical faux-opera vibrato that rattles the floorboards with its mockery. Later, a female prisoner (the gorgeous Jasmine Guy) and her “Matron” (Avery Sommers, a huge bundle of charisma) pipe out the duet “Class,” a sarcastic lament for the demise of ethics: “What ever happened to old values . . . and good breeding?/Jesus Christ, ain’t there no decency left?/Holy crap, what a shame/What ever became of class?”
Chicago pretty much follows the scenario of Watkins’ play, based on a 1924 news story about a tall redhead named Beulah Annan, here reincarnated as gum-snapping wannabe vaudevillian Roxie Hart (Charlotte d’Amboise). One day, Roxie shoots her lover (Jeffrey Broadhurst) in cold blood. (Actual press accounts describe the murder as being accompanied by the Hawaiian foxtrot “Hula Lou,” squeaking out its lyrics — “She’s got more men than a dog has fleas” — over Beulah’s Victrola.) After initially phoning in a self-defense plea to her car-mechanic husband (Ron Orbach), the tipsy Roxie later tells police that she indeed had sex with the victim, and shot him after he threatened to leave her.
Watkins was struck by how the press dubbed Beulah Chicago’s “prettiest prisoner” and by how Beulah’s eagerness for exoneration led her to say and do almost anything, from offers of sexual favors, to sucker-punching her husband, to feigning pregnancy. In a contemptuous reflection upon Beulah’s acquittal, Watkins wrote, “So Beulah Annan, whose pursuit of wine, men and jazz music was interrupted by her glibness with the trigger finger, was given freedom by her beauty-proof jury.”
The musical version picks up on Watkins’ fury while removing the moral indignation, leaving us with a Brechtian sneer the size of, well, Chicago.
The Broadway public probably wasn’t ready for Chicago’s brash cynicism when the musical premiered in 1974 to a lukewarm reception. But there’s been a lot of blood under the bridge since then, much of it televised. And that’s the difference. A musical that seemed to its detractors a lurid, anti-American editorial and celebration of scandalous living is now embraced as a documentary mirror of our times. (For this tweak of perception and perspective, we owe a debt, of sorts, to Brentwood’s own “trial of the century.”)
“It’s all a three-ring circus!” proclaims Roxie’s snake-hearted lawyer, Billy Flynn (the dashing Brent Barrett), justifying his humiliation of Roxie’s loyal if twerpish husband as a decoy for the press. (For this “service,” Roxie’s shlub hubby shells out five grand.) Soon after, Billy bursts into song: “Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle, hocus-pocus/How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”
This somewhat facile approach to the world pretty much sums up not only Chicago’s theme, but also its technique, which is as irreproachable as the performances. The wafer-thin plot — Roxie’s felony and Billy Flynn’s justice-defying machinations to set her free — drives Ann Reinking’s gloriously undulating choreography “in the style of Bob Fosse.” It’s all writhing, wrist-snapping gestures in which the chorus at times resembles a tentacled beast that occasionally bifurcates to pant in orgiastic fervor. Kander’s music derives from ragtime and early American jazz styles, while Ken Billington’s lights sculpt the spectacle with sharply angled shafts, blazing beams straight into the audience. Indeed, how can they see with sequins in their eyes?
The previous show on this stage, Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, also danced its way home on a sliver of an idea — about how African-Americans in general, and Savion Glover in particular, repossessed tap dance as their own means of expression. The rest was all history-skit pageantry; it didn’t really need anything else. But Chicago has more on its mind — and less in its heart.
The difference between this show and similarly cynical musicals that actually haunt you a week after viewing them — Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd come to mind — lies in the artfulness of their storytelling and their regard for the viewer’s intelligence. Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd tell their story not in a linear thread (as in Chicago), but as a tapestry of events. The audience is expected to fill in at least some of the pieces, which makes the experience an active rather than a passive one. Chicago is the theatrical equivalent of an amusement-park ride. All you really have to do is hang on to your seat. Disneyland’s Space Mountain is fun in a similar way, but at least it doesn’t try to pass itself off as a comment on astronomy.