Theater critic

Maria Rizzo with Mike Kozemchak in “Chicago,” at the Keegan Theatre. (Cameron Whitman/Cameron Whitman)

If there’s a bulletproof musical, “Chicago” is it. The John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse masterpiece has been on Broadway and the road so long you don’t expect to encounter anything but that slinky version that’s been part of the entertainment landscape since the last century, but the Dupont Circle troupe Keegan Theatre has opened a production that’s surprisingly fun — particularly in Maria Rizzo’s Roxie Hart.

More than anyone else, Rizzo’s got the proper steamy dance style and Colt .45 attitude. Her gunshot laugh gives Roxie an unpredictable quality: Rizzo is frightened, dangerous and freshly funny with lines you’ve heard a dozen times, and she is easily the dancer to watch. She is precise as the ventriloquist’s dummy with floppy arms for lawyer Billy Flynn in “We Both Reached for the Gun,” and the orbiting hips and arcing spine are on the money during “Hot Honey Rag.”

Rizzo is the shiniest object in the show, but directors Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea get credit for creating a merry tone and for giving emerging talent a chance to stretch. Jessica Bennett’s asset as Velma is mainly vocal, though she athletically kicks and twirls her way through the absurdly demanding “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” Kurt Boehm isn’t raffish enough as Billy Flynn, but he has razzle-dazzle when he dances.

The choreography is wholly in the Fosse vernacular, and Rachel Leigh Dolan guides the big numbers — “We Both Reached for the Gun” and “Razzle Dazzle,” especially — to satisfying crests. The performance zips from song to song and just basically works, not always with major moxie but occasionally glowing where you don’t expect it to. It’s emblematic of how the ambition and standards for musicals have continued to rise all around Washington for the past 10 years or so.

More companies up and down the spectrum want to dance, and they’re getting better at it. More companies are hiring more musicians to make the scores sound good, and music director Jake Null’s 11 instrumentalists are fairly reliable at delivering this show’s vaudeville colors, including the jaunty banjo and laughing horns.


They had it comin’: “Chicago” on Dupont Circle. (Cameron Whitman/Cameron Whitman)

Matthew J. Keenan’s effective two-level set in the roughly 100-seat theater is like a jumbo prison with the orchestra on top and a central staircase in the middle for low-rent glamorous entrances. The costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson are more in line with the light-colored lingerie of the original 1975 production than the timelessly hip, all-black 1996 update, which is fine. This is not a creative reinvention of one of the leanest, meanest musicals ever (why toy with it?), but it’s an opportunity for, say, Chris Rudy to show how splendidly he can sing Mary Sunshine’s falsetto “A Little Bit of Good,” and for Stephen Russell Murray to dance like a drunken switchblade as Fred Casely, the lout Roxie shoots. It’s not a champagne “Chicago,” but for bathtub gin, it ain’t bad.

Chicago, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Directed by Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea. Lights, Jason Arnold; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through April 14 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $45-$55. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.