at the Shubert Theatre

By Albert Williams

In 1973 an actress friend and I escorted Bob Fosse, who was in town to collect an honorary degree from Columbia College, around Chicago for a couple of days. Then at the height of his career, Fosse was a native of the Ravenswood neighborhood, and my friend and I, both working in off-Loop theater, wanted to show him that the city he’d left long ago was becoming a significant, innovative center for performing arts. But Fosse–a companionable fellow despite a certain bitter edge–was distinctly uninterested. It was clear that this esteemed Broadway and Hollywood director-choreographer, who’d started out as a teenage song-and-dance man in burlesque joints here, thought Chicago was a good place to be–from.

So I wasn’t surprised a few years later when Fosse’s musical Chicago turned his hometown into a symbol of sleaze and sin–an all-American version of the decadent Berlin he’d depicted in his film Cabaret. The notion hadn’t originated with him, to be sure; produced on Broadway in 1975, Fosse’s Chicago was based on a 1926 play of the same name written by former Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins and inspired by real-life murder cases she’d covered. (Watkins’s specialty was personal profiles of female killers–“sob sister” journalism that milked juicy stories with a canny blend of sentiment and irony; she could have been a model for the reporter Rosalind Russell played in His Girl Friday.) But Watkins’s comedy–about an adulteress who kills her boyfriend and then beats the rap with the help of a clever lawyer–was very much a product of its time, a satire on the rowdy lifestyles and sensationalistic press of the Windy City in the Roaring Twenties. Fosse expanded Watkins’s specifics into a much larger statement, a portrait of America as a cesspool of decadence and depravity, filled with heavy-handed commentary about how little had changed in 50 years. It wasn’t just the murderer, Roxie Hart, whom Fosse put on trial; it was the audience itself. The charges: venality, gullibility, and amorality. The evidence: the fact that the audience was enjoying the very show that was accusing them–falling for the old “Razzle Dazzle,” as one song calls it, and fulfilling Roxie’s view of them as “suckers.”

Chicago was a success in its original run thanks largely to the appeal of its near-legendary stars: Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s wife and muse, played Roxie, and Chita Rivera played her cell mate and fellow killer Velma. But critics complained that the show was too cynical, and eventually it was overshadowed by Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, which opened the same year and continued running long after Chicago had closed. Both musicals used show business as a metaphor for the human condition; but where A Chorus Line (which was based on Bennett’s interviews with dancers) honored hard work and dedication to craft, Chicago exalted easy money and the lust for fame. Where A Chorus Line’s dancers opened their wounded hearts in cathartic confessions, Chicago mocked such emotional self-exposure. “I’m a star, and they love me, and I love them, and they love me for loving them, and I love them for loving me, and that’s because none of us got enough love in our childhoods–and that’s showbiz, folks!” Roxie proclaims. A Chorus Line was a tribute to and critique of the musical theater; Chicago was a sneering caricature of showbiz sleaze as represented by Fosse’s hometown, where he came of age in such north-side nightclubs as the Cuban Village and Cave of the Winds and journeyed to Loop venues like the Blackstone Hotel and the Oriental Theater to see great dancers like Paul Draper and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Now, just a month after what would have been Fosse’s 70th birthday (he died of a heart attack in 1987), Chicago has returned to its creator’s birthplace as the flavor of the month. Hype mongers are invoking simplistic, misleading contemporary analogies (Andrew Cunanan, O.J. Simpson) to the play’s high-profile murder and manipulative courtroom antics. And for those who like their metaphors in black and white, the casting of African-American actor Obba Babatunde as Roxie’s lawyer has drawn references to Johnnie Cochran. But the show’s real subject isn’t crime, it’s show business; its greatest strength is the way it appropriates vaudeville forms to tell its story, and its greatest drawback is that it never transcends Fosse’s love/hate, admiration/contempt relationship with his audience, his art, and himself.

For years a cult favorite on the regional-theater circuit, the show has been reborn in a sleek, stripped-down Broadway revival, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed in the Fosse style by his erstwhile protege-companion Ann Reinking (who also revealed Fosse’s influence in her dances for the Goodman Theatre’s Pal Joey). Based on a 1996 concert staging for New York’s “Encores!” series, the new version of Chicago (“The Drop-Dead Broadway Musical,” the ads call it) eschews elaborate sets and luridly colorful costumes (but not high ticket prices) to focus on the essence of Fosse’s art: lithe, muscular bodies slinking and strutting and slouching around in dangerous yet enticing darkness, employing such signature Fosse accessories as chairs, derbies, and cigarettes as they kick their legs, thrust their pelvises, hunch their shoulders, splay their fingers, and move their arms in slow, serpentine patterns. The dancing is usually entertaining and sometimes thrilling–especially when it’s executed by leading lady Charlotte d’Amboise, whose combination of classicism and carnality puts a wonderful new spin on the Fosse tradition. And John Kander and Fred Ebb’s score remains a listenable, witty pastiche of 20s ragtime and jazz, featuring wonderful horn and saxophone licks by a crack onstage band Rob Bowman conducts.

Fosse and Ebb’s script finds historic showbiz equivalents for the story’s characters. The “scintillating sinners” Roxie (d’Amboise) and Velma (Jasmine Guy), who hope to parlay their notoriety into vaudeville careers, are rival burlesque headliners who finally team up for a pseudo-sister act. Their showboat lawyer Billy Flynn (Babatunde) is a toothsome, tuxedoed tenor surrounded by chorines waving white feathered fans, and Roxie’s sad-sack husband Amos (Ron Orbach) is a spoof of minstrel-show clown Bert Williams, known for his shuffling comic pathos in such songs as “Nobody” (Amos’s minstrel-show antecedents are slyly hinted at when other characters accidentally call him Andy). The “sob sister” reporter Mary Sunshine is a female impersonator a la Julian Eltinge (played by impressive male mezzo M.E. Spencer), and the butch prison matron is a hefty, Sophie Tucker-like red-hot mama (unfortunately the sheer brute force of Carol Woods’s big, bluesy voice obscures the raunchy double entendres of her “When You’re Good to Mama”). Roxie and Velma’s fellow cons are hard-boiled burlesque queens who dance the “Cell Block Tango,” and when one of them–an eastern European whose only words of English are “not guilty”–is sentenced to the gallows, her execution is enacted as a “famous Hungarian rope trick.”

But despite its clever concept and impressive music and dancing, Chicago remains an oddly unsatisfying work. Fosse’s attempt to turn Roxie’s story into a metaphor for society fails to convince; the show’s cynicism reflects Fosse’s own personal conflicts rather than a credible social or ethical assessment. (It wasn’t for several more years that a wiser and older Fosse was able to confront this, in his harrowingly self-revealing film All That Jazz, a fictionalized account of the mental and physical health problems he suffered during rehearsals for Chicago.)

Ironically, the revival’s spare, classy, black-and-white design (set by John Lee Beatty, lights by Ken Billington, and costumes by William Ivey Long) and minimalist, concert-style staging recall the innovative simplicity of Chicago’s onetime competitor A Chorus Line. That show had its run: one of Chicago’s chief assets now is its novelty. But where the characters in A Chorus Line, even at their most bathetic, are clearly drawn from real life, Chicago remains a collection of caricatures. Though it’s inspired by historical events, there’s not much substance behind the razzle-dazzle, making even a production this impressive a show that doesn’t quite work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.