If you can't get Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, the original stars, for a revival of "Chicago" these days -- and you probably can't -- you do not automatically turn to Penny Worth and Carolyn Kirsch.
Judging from the evidence, in fact, Worth and Kirsch ought to be pretty far down anyone's list. Unfortunately, they are all over the stage of the Warner Theatre, where the Bob Fosse/John Kander/Fred Ebb musical opened last night. This is a road company in all the worst aspects of the term -- chintzy sets, klutzy performers and shabby direction. But it is the presence of two lead performers, lacking any incandescence whatsoever, that seals the show's fate early in the evening.
After all, "Chicago" is a musical vaudeville about performing itself, the razzle-dazzle that redeems all sins. Set in the Roaring Twenties, its main characters, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, are a pair of chorines eager to break into the spotlight, even if it means plugging a mate or a lover first to capture the world's attention. Get the headlines, get acquitted, then get on the stage before the notoriety fades. Such is the formula for success in this purposefully sleazy, cynical show, which looks on Dame Justice Herself as just another potential spectator to be bamboozled.
Fosse, who helped write the book, was also responsible for the original staging, which is to say the sleaze had flash and the cynicism was as irresistible as a slick carnival barker. No Broadway director has Fosse's appreciation of the tawdrier forms of show business or his ability to blend them all into a high-gloss entertainment.
According to the program notes, the production at the Warner is directed by John Sharpe and Jackie Warner "after the original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse." Long after! This version bears about as much resemblance to the original as the neon on 14th Street does to that of the Las Vegas strip. In only one tiny instance do you get a suggestion of the rather intoxicatingly garish giddiness that propelled the musical to success on Broadway in 1975. That is the performance of a certain M. O'Haughey, as a sob sister of the press, who positively dotes on the agony and heartbreak of the two murderous chorines.
O'Haughey gets only one song, "A Little Bit of Good," which urges us all, with the same teeth-chattering irony that characterizes the show as a whole, to look on the bright side of life. The performer delivers it in a chipper falsetto that would shame churchbells on a spring morning. It is a very funny turn.
Otherwise, this production mangles number after number in a splendid Kander and Ebb score that includes, among other acts of extroversion, "All That Jazz, "All I Care About" and a frank lament for the disappearance of "Class." (The latter is sung by a dispirited Velma and a tyrannical prison matron, who, in deference to the subject, hoist their language halfway out of the gutter.)
A production as inept as this one is more than a waste of some snazzy material. When, at the start of the second act, Velma calls out to the audience, "Welcome back, suckers!" the greeting has a baldfaced accuracy that is just short of shocking.
CHICAGO. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by John Sharpe and Jackie Warner; choreography, Gene Foote; sets, David R. Ballou; musical direction, Richard C. Wall; lighting, Marl Weingartner. With Penny Worth, Carolyn Kirsch, Bill McCauley, Donald Norris, Jane Judge, M. O'Haughey. At the Warner Theatre through Feb. 28.