Most of the way through the three hours of crude tedium that is "Chicago," the Bob Fosse musical asks in song, "Whatever happened to class?"
What, indeed? The point of this show is to demonstrate that everyone is either a sucker or a crook, and that the only value recognized by the society is publicity. It is not something that people have trouble believing these days, even without watching some interchangeable male and female Kewpie dolls bragging mechanically about their lies and murders and personal cruelties.
"Chicago" has had notable success in previous stage and film incarnations, beginning with a stage version in 1926 -- the period it's set in -- and including a Ginger Rogers movie. Frank vulgarity and cynicism can be engaging when sparked with vitality and humor.
But any such charm has to be within a context of other possibilities, even if these can all be dismissed as hypocrisy. When this version points to the audience and declares that it is we who make their way of life possible and profitable, there is no shock created. Partly, one must note, it was because by then on opening night, many of the seats had been vacated.
Within the rigidity that is imposed to represent the toughness of the characters, it's difficult to tell whether the performers could have brought some appeal to their roles, had any been permitted a fleeting moment inconsistent with the mean theme. But there is so little effort to simulate pleasing qualities that the very plot premise that criminals go free by playing on the stupidly soft emotions of suckers is sabotaged.
The celebrated Fosse choreography is not, in this case, directed by Fosse, but "after" his work, by John Sharpe and Jackie Warner. There are recognizable Fosse motifs. But the succession of numbers in which the dancers stomp stiffly at an angle across the stage, or undulate their hips to set fringed costumes swinging is -- well, totally within the spirit of the production, which is a terrible thing to have to say. CHICAGO -- At the Warner through February 28.