When the 1996 revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Chicago" first came to the National Theatre, it nearly set the house on fire. Almost three years later, the temperature on the National stage, where the latest tour just opened, is, if anything, two degrees hotter--thanks to Nana Visitor and Vicki Lewis, the new leads. They bump. They grind. They belt. They coo. And with the rest of the company--a harem of stunning male and female bodies writhing and smoldering under skimpy, skintight outfits--they send a sizzle from the top of your spine all the way down.
All this and witty social commentary, too.
Based on Maurine Dallas Watkins's 1926 play of the same title, "Chicago" tells the sordid tale of two cheap chorines, Roxie (Visitor) and Velma (Lewis), who off their lovers and find themselves sensationalized by an even cheaper press, bringing them publicity they never had as dancers. Better yet, their shrewd, sleazy lawyer knows just how to parlay their infamy into celebrity and eventually an acquittal--which, they hope, will turn them into headliners in their own shows.
Kander and Ebb first wrote their version, with some help on the book from Bob Fosse, in 1975. Post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, in the middle of what would be called the "Me Decade," their story is ruthlessly cynical, a delicious satire of consuming self-interest. But to some--like Gore Vidal, who once wrote that we are "essentially a nation of hustlers" among whom "the honest man is simply the one whose cheating goes undetected"--consuming self-interest is the engine of success in America. In "Chicago," it's almost a farcical religion, the humor of which derives from adherents unconsciously competing for the title of Most Devoted.
The Broadway premiere, though a commercial success, didn't particularly wow the critics because Fosse, it was said, had overdone the directing and choreography. The current revival, directed by Walter Bobbie, is stripped down to essentials--music, singing, dancing and an orchestra on a bare stage. The show immediately and brilliantly evokes the dark heart of the book and lyrics.
But Bobbie's flair for burlesque, along with Ann Reinking's angular, sensual choreography ("in the Fosse style," as the program points out), keeps everything on a level of deliciously wicked fun. Neither praising nor condemning, this "Chicago" draws you in by unabashedly reveling in the irresistible luridness.
Lewis's flaming red hair, sinewy body and tough good looks make for an intriguing Velma, whose rock-hard surface gradually softens throughout the show. It's a great contrast to Visitor, who, with her sharp features, long legs and dash of surface innocence, could pass for a young Shirley MacLaine. Roxie's an ice-cold egotist beneath a soft shell, but Visitor manages to make her both guileless and beguiling. Together, Lewis and Visitor strike sparks off each other--as singers, dancers and actors.
The surprise is Robert Urich in the role of the lawyer, Billy Flynn. Judging from the television shows that made Urich famous ("Spenser for Hire" and "Vega$"), you wouldn't think he's got the character's charismatic ooze. Urich's Flynn is more cheese than sleaze, but the interpretation works because Urich underplays him like some veteran used-car salesman who knows how to work any kind of mark stupid enough to walk onto his lot. Urich isn't a great singer, but he's got the other thing the part requires--irony.
M.E. Spencer, in the role of Mary Sunshine, girl reporter, is also a surprise as well as a delight (for further details, you'll just have to see the show). And as Roxie's sap of a husband, Roy Bokhour earns your laughs, contempt and, in the end, your respect.
The supporting ensemble is a dazzle of torsos, abs, cleavage, hips and pelvises strutting and flashing across the stage with frightening precision. Music director Vincent Fanuele leads a tight, high-voltage orchestra. Ken Billington's lighting is nothing short of seductive, often bathing the black stage in one or another beautiful shade of gray. Nice metaphor, that.
The leanest, meanest and sexiest musical in years is back. Consider yourself warned.
Chicago, by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Costumes, William Ivey Long; sound, Scott Lehrer. At the National Theatre through Jan. 2. Call 800-447-7400.