“Hello, suckers!” cries Terra C. MacLeod’s sultry Velma Kelly at the beginning of Chicago’s second act. She’s speaking, of course, to us, the audience, and we chuckle because we know she’s right. Chicago — in ways far slinkier and shadier than we might originally think or expect — makes suckers of us all, and it’s next to impossible to resist.
Chicago, a musical vaudeville set in the morally polluted streets of Prohibition-era Chicago, works its many charms imperceptibly. It starts off with a bang — two literal explosions to be exact — but then pulls back and slows down. It’s possible to be bored for a time — the plot is so paper-thin it’s a wonder the show pulls off two-plus hours — but that’s the point.
By the time Velma greets us with that most exquisite of insults, we smile in spite of ourselves because we know then that, while we thought we were bored, we were in fact being seduced and manipulated into this subversive, sordid, spectacular world.
Now in a three-week run at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood as part of its 11th national tour, the present revival of Chicago, which premiered on Broadway in 1996, is a permutation of the 1975 original, itself based on a 1926 play.
Audiences today might be more familiar with Rob Marshall’s 2002 movie adaptation — a fine film, well-acted and visually interesting but clunky and ostentatious in comparison to the stage show.
Because it’s been adapted and re-adapted so many times, one would be far better off banishing all preconceptions of Chicago before taking his seat at the Pantages.
That reality is heightened when Chicago deliberately and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in its interaction with the crowd, a more modern trend that probably didn’t sit well with more traditional audiences.
When Velma speaks to us, we feel suddenly self-conscious, which is of course the point — to make us uncomfortable with ourselves. The story about Roxie Hart (Michelle Williams, of Destiny’s Child fame), a chorine-turned-murderess who, aided by an opportunistic defense attorney (Brent Barrett’s Billy Flynn) and a sympathetic public, exploits her crime for fame.
Chicago’s creators John Kander and Fred Ebb, with Bob Fosse contributing his iconic choreography, chose to keep the stage sparse, making it easier for the audience to make connections.
The set is mostly a few chairs and ladders, the props a few hats and feather plumes, but we still see everything — the jail (where the six merry murderesses sing a show-stopping “Cell Block Tango”), the courtroom (where the orchestra’s box, completely on stage, looms like a massive judge’s seat) and Billy Flynn’s office (where he sings about love). It’s the brilliance of the production that it can feel totally overproduced but in reality be starkly minimalist.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a show without its central performances, and most are up to the task. Williams’ Roxie, who kills her ex-lover in a fit of rage at the start of the show, might seem strange at first. By the end of the first act, however, we understand her character. Williams brings a rich voice, a playful sensuality and a light comedic touch to the role, and it’s a winner.
But MacLeod’s Velma, a washed-up vaudevillian in jail for a double homicide, steals many of Williams’ scenes. She’s a simple character — all passion and desperation — played with wonderful complexity. Desperate to reclaim the limelight Roxie steals from her, Velma will even stoop so low as to ask Roxie to be her performance partner once they get out of jail.
That number, “I Can’t Do It Alone,” showcases MacLeod’s formidable dancing and singing abilities. Her legs slice through the air with sharp precision, though she should be wary of overplaying her body in non-musical scenes.
Carol Woods as Matron “Mama” Morton, a meaty role, is a standout. Of the show’s five numbers of pure magnificence — “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “A Little Bit of Good,” “Class” and Roxie and Velma’s final performance — Woods has two of them. Her vocal power is through the roof.
Other notables include Barrett’s Flynn and Amos (Riis Farrell), Roxie’s wallflower of a husband whose aw-shucks niceness in “Mister Cellophane” is particularly memorable.
R. Lowe’s Mary Sunshine is superb, and the surprise reveal in the second act alone is worth the price of admission (about $70 for center orchestra).
It’s the male ensemble performers who pull the show down. They’re showy, distracting and occasionally effeminate in their dancing. In a show about standing in the spotlight — literally and figuratively — the urge to shout and be the center of attention is understandable but should be down played.
Chicago is as much dance as it is song, and Fosse’s choreography is unstoppable. It’s loud and soft, big and little but never over the top. Ken Billington’s lighting is striking, and the Pantages has never sounded better (Scott Lehrer did the sound design). William Ivey Long’s simple, black, lacey costumes are cleverly androgynous, in keeping with the show’s subtle homoeroticism and general promotion of ambiguity.
In the end, we expect some big finale, but of course we don’t exactly get it. We get a final “All That Jazz,” the show’s lasting signature done here with poise and restraint, amid a paradoxical backdrop of glitz and glamor.
Chicago messes with the crowd from the start, duping us into cheering for everything that’s wrong with society — the glamorization of crime, the amorality of the justice system and the glorification of violence. It’s mesmerizing, and we can’t get enough.