Somewhere that’s what the brain purrs when confronted by glamour. It locks up. It adores and desires, envies and craves. That’s the allure of celebrity — and the armor of celebrity, if you’ve got it. Because then you can say this:
Winning is what celebrity is, and the streamlined, indestructible musical satire “Chicago” has been making the cynical point and laughing all the way to the bank for two decades now. It’s at the Kennedy Center for the first time since establishing itself as a Broadway fixture in 1996, where the revival of director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s 1975 show continues to churn its nasty, scantily clad hips to tell the tale of two sexy murderesses, a corruptible justice system and sensation-minded newspapers. After a tired turn at the National Theatre two years ago, it’s back — maybe not with a vengeance, but with R&B pop star Brandy Norwood as Roxie Hart, and at least now brandishing a smile on her lips as she blows smoke in your eyes.
If you’ve seen the show half a dozen times, this iteration will fall in the middle of the pack. The old gal’s not as alarmingly lifeless as the last time she took a spin through town. But she’s not as razor-sharp as she can be when her practiced dancers — panthers, really, prowling in their sheer black lingerie — are precisely knifing the air with rigid legs and writhing midsections, and when all her jokes are ham-free and laced with arsenic. If you’ve ever seen “Chicago” when it’s completely flush with aces . . . wow. Too bad, pal. You’re wrecked for life.
What Brandy brings is her smoky, singular, Grammy-winning voice. You’d take her sultry, dead-accurate crooning over plastic Broadway belting any day; that’s the asset. She moves better than you’d expect during her long fantasia about fame, the slow-vamping “Roxie,” and she can be funny (as long as she keeps her speaking energy up), unleashing a deliriously skillful string of notes as a witty, lusty response to one of the muscled chorus boys sidling her way. The dance-driven ironic happy ending? Not her strong point.
But there are customers at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House specifically for her: She’s famous. “Chicago” can do that with its Roxies, who over the years on Broadway have included Melanie Griffith, Christie Brinkley, Robin Givens and Brooke Shields — none of whom has Brandy’s musical gift, and none of whom would remotely crowd out the memory of the 1996 Roxie, Ann Reinking, who also choreographed this revival “in the style,” as it’s billed, of her longtime lover, Fosse.
Roxie’s jailhouse rival for trial-of-the-year attention, Velma Kelly, has demanding dances that can’t be fudged, so the role tends to be cast with trained dancers who can wow a crowd simply by partnering with a chair. (See the acrobatically comic “I Can’t Do It Alone.”) Terra C. MacLeod measures up from the moment she enters, with sharp shoulders that look like they could chip granite. She’s a real dancer, and she also gets the show’s wry verve. One of the funniest bits at the Kennedy Center is MacLeod’s Velma jealously mocking the attention-getting vocal trills of Brandy’s Roxie. Chemistry! And only here, folks — Brandy, who admirably calls theater “the real show business,” is on tour just for this two-week D.C. stop.
Overall the show feels less dense with intoxicating dance than you may remember. Some years the chorus has been stunningly good, a pack of rock-hard bodies moving smooth as honey, knocking you sideways with impeccably measured wiggles and thrusts, bowler hats tilted low over the eyes. When it cuts out the mugging, keeps the humor knowing and rigorously frames its untouchable talent, you feel that performance-wise, “Chicago” really could kick forever.
What’s clear 20 years on is that the laughing spirit and corrupt heart captured by the jaunty John Kander-Fred Ebb vaudeville songs really is America, now and always. Is truth getting trammeled by spin? Buzz? Misdirection? Is some shameless flimflam artist riding high? When this revival opened in 1996, comparisons were quickly drawn to the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, with a celebrity skating away as the term “Kardashian” entered the lexicon. Lately, SNL knew it could slip Kellyanne Conway under showbiz lights, into Roxie Hart-esque little dress and atop of raft of chorus boys, and it would make sense. It’s a razzle-dazzle nation. Somebody’s always getting away with murder.
The play about Roxie, Velma, Roxie’s dim husband, Amos, slick lawyer Billy Flynn and prison matron Mama Morton actually dates to 1927, and some of its wiseguy dialogue endures in the musical. Playwright-journalist Maurine Watkins based the script on her 1924 reporting of lurid jazz-booze-murder trials, stories featuring headlines such as “Demand Noose for ‘Prettiest’ Woman Slayer,” “Beulah Annan Awaits Stork, Murder Trial” (yes, the wily Roxie’s fake pregnancy is drawn from real life) and “Dancer Faces Jury in Fashion’s Latest” (fashion’s latest what, it does not say).
So of course by now, this sexy, seedy celeb-fest feels like a national monument, a ravishing grand canyon where ethics go to die and American Dream opportunism prances and gloats. No clever director will ever need to reinvent “Chicago.” The question, always, is whether the next cast has the chops to slay us all over again.
Chicago, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Re-creation of original production direction, David Hyslop. With Brent Barrett, Roz Ryan and Paul Vogt. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Through April 16 in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Tickets $49-$149. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.