Bob Fosse, John Kander, and Fred Ebb’s 1975 musical, based on Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 comedy about celebrity, crime, and corruption in Prohibition-era Chicago, ingeniously uses classic showbiz forms to tell the story of a Windy City showgirl, Roxie Hart, put on trial for killing her boyfriend. Roxie’s lawyer is a Ziegfeld Follies-style tenor accompanied by fan-waving chorines, for instance; the butch prison matron is a Sophie Tucker-like red-hot mama, and the hanging of an eastern European immigrant is portrayed as a “famous Hungarian rope trick.” So director Walter Bobbie’s casting of Joel Grey as Roxie’s timid sucker of a husband is a masterstroke. Grey–who played Amos Hart when this revival hit Broadway in 1996 and is now in the show’s Chicago cast (through January 3 only)–is the keeper of a vaudeville tradition inherited from his father, comedian Mickey Katz. Half a century ago–long before Grey won fame as the leering master of ceremonies in the Broadway and film versions of Cabaret–he was a child entertainer, appearing with his dad in such venues as Chicago’s old Blackstone (now DePaul University’s Merle Reskin) theater. Amos Hart was conceived as a lumbering lug whose big number, “Mister Cellophane,” is modeled on “Nobody,” the signature song of vaudeville star Bert Williams. But the diminutive Grey tailors the role to fit himself, conveying the character’s sad-sack comic pathos with deft, delicate precision: donning white gloves, Grey looks like a figure from an early Disney silent; opening his oversize mouth in a plaintive plea for attention or widening his saucer eyes in hapless hope that his errant wife will come back to him, he recalls the great Joe E. Brown’s sweet silliness and oddball, almost infantile eroticism. Grey can do more with a one-second shrug than most performers can do with a five-minute dance routine; in a time when all too many musical-theater actors indulge in an outsize emotionalism better suited to bad heavy-metal acts, Grey’s simple, indelibly etched performance is a marvel to behold. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1500. Through January 3 (and then without Grey January 5 through 31): Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 2 and 7 PM; Wednesday, December 23 and 30, 2 and 7:30 PM; no show Thursday, December 24, or Friday, January 1. $20-$70; $25-$85 for the show on Thursday, December 31; day-of-show rush discounts available. –Albert Williams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.