A few years ago, I learned that my former high school was staging a production of Chicago. I was slightly grossed out, since, well—ew. That’s a lot of flesh. Call me old-fashioned, but while I like a show about brazen sexuality and violence as much as the next person, I prefer it when the actors are not 15-year-olds.
That being said, I believe a high school theater department is doing its job if it introduces students to classics that are classics for a reason, and to that end Chicago fit the bill. Theater lovers tend to idolize Bob Fosse, and as I watched the opening number in the touring production playing at the Ordway through August 12, I couldn’t help thinking that they’re right to do so. Fosse’s signature isolated movements are on slinky, sultry display, in dances that remind the audience why sometimes less really is more.
The play is at its best when it showcases the physical inventiveness of choreographer Ann Reinking (who herself is showcasing the physical inventiveness of Fosse), such as in the excellent courtroom scene. This is why Fosse deserves to be remembered: a stage full of dancers doing those teeny-tiny movements adds up to a dazzling spectacle, and the deliberate nonchalance with which those moves are executed lends an effective cynicism to the decidedly dark script. Beyond the dancing, though, the middle of the show drags, with one or two too many smokey jazz ballads serving very similar plot purposes, and acting that is better in the second half.
Not long before the aspiring actors at Roseville High School were baring perhaps a little too much in their version of Fosse’s play, another revival was making waves on Broadway: John Doyle’s 2004 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. A total re-imagining of the original, it featured a 10-person cast who played an eerily pared-down score on their own instruments, on a set starkly suggestive of a psych ward. I mention this not to say that I think this aesthetic would’ve suited Chicago, or even to say that Doyle’s production was good and this production is bad. However, it came to my head as an example of what a revival can be. Chilling, creative, yet still in the spirit of Sondheim, it didn’t simply bring a classic back to life. It breathed new life into a classic.
This Chicago is fun, and basically exactly what you’d expect. Yes, it is a bit of a riot to see J. Peterman—I mean, John O’Hurley—play a sleazy lawyer with the easy schmaltz he’s perfected after years of hosting the annual Purina Thanksgiving Dog Show. Yes, it is still pretty sexy to see all those dancers thrust and gyrate at each other in their underwear. 37 years after its debut, Chicago is a show that still has fishnet-clad legs. This production is an entertaining and carefully preserved homage to its creator—but at the close of the curtain, little more than that.
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