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Nashville Scene Killing Time

"Chicago" isn't murder.

By Maureen Needham

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Murder and mayhem and misogyny make for quite a mouthful in the Broadway musical Chicago, in which vengeful women wreak their spite upon lovers who have crossed their paths. During the play's four-day run last week, TPAC's Jackson Hall metamorphosed into Chicago during the 1920s, complete with adulterers, lawyers, politicians, and the tabloid press.

Six women prisoners on murderer's row sang that "He had it coming to him" and explained their rationales for whomping their victims' brains out. One beauty complained that her lover popped his chewing gum. Picky, picky. Another found her husband in bed with her sister, while yet a third came home early from work and happened upon a menage a quatre in her bed. No matter, the perfidy of men can be easily remedied with a simple shotgun blast. As these women cheerfully reminded us, "He had it coming."

Tell that to the judge! Enter a sleazy lawyer who reveals himself to be a master manipulator of the tabloids--evidently part of the job description for attorneys even back then. Brent Barrett, who played lawyer Billy Flynn, was suitably unctuous and arrogant by turns. He immediately informed the audience that "In Chicago, murder is a form of entertainment," and then proceeded to turn the trial into a three-ring circus, with various murderesses performing for the public as if they were trained seals.

Barrett proved a highly polished performer with a refined baritone voice, and he added oomph and "Razzle-Dazzle" during the song of that name. As he literally walked a tightrope onstage, he advised the audience that "you'll get away with murder" if the razzle-dazzle sparkles sufficiently to impress the jury. At the end of the number, small squares of aluminum foil drifted downward from the wings, glittering and gleaming in the blue and red spotlights, while the chorus joined in the song waving their sparkly pompons. He proved his point: If the audience was so dazzled by this production number, how could the jury fail to let our heroine go scot-free?

Of course, the audience knew from the beginning that Roxie Hart was guilty as hell. After all, the very moment the curtain opened, they saw her gun a guy down in cold blood. He was a-going to leave her, and she didn't hold with any no-good lover walking out on her! Played by Karen Ziemba, Roxie is based on a real-life character who did indeed shoot her lover dead and then managed to walk away from the murder trial with a not-guilty verdict. Ziemba was cute, she was alternately brassy and ingenuous, she had memorized all her lines, she studied all her gestures and didn't miss a beat...but she just wasn't much of a Roxie.

Stephanie Pope, in contrast, was Velma Kelly, another of the play's murderous characters. She was passionate, she was funny, and she was in character 110 percent of the time. What's more, she looked a bit like the sensuous Eartha Kitt and danced a little like the sassy Josephine Baker. What a combination! She shone especially on "I Can't Do It Alone." Ostensibly pleading for a partner in her up-and-coming vaudeville routine (once she beats her murder rap), Velma demonstrated to Roxie what their proposed act would be about. Pope was like a walking encyclopedia of burlesque theater as she performed every stupid clich in a string of old-fashioned vaudeville routines--and then added a few new ones of her own. It was exhausting to watch her. This very talented comedienne and singer claimed that she couldn't do it alone, but she proved herself completely wrong.


All that jazz
There are no protagonists in Chicago -- but the characters are entertaining.

Tom McGowan, as Roxie's forgotten husband, lamented that nobody noticed his existence even when he stood directly in front of them. The singer made a virtue out of his nonentity and cajoled the audience into feeling sorry for the underdog. As a reward, he was given one of the biggest hands of the evening. What a pro!

To the chorus goes much of the credit for the success of this sleek-looking show, originally conceived and directed by Bob Fosse. Long-legged chorus women stalked about and slithered their way across the stage to the raucous tones of trumpets. But the male chorus deserves credit as well; they were every bit as good at the ostentatious bumps and grinds that characterize Fosse's percussive and flashy choreography.

Chicago is no romantic, girl-meets-boy musical. In fact, there was only one love song in the entire show, and the character who sang it addressed it to herself! Nor is Chicago a musical that leaves you humming a happy tune as you step out onto the street. No, it's a blackly humorous play that suggests it's a mean-spirited, cynical world out there. The tone was decadent, bawdy, even downright outrageous at points. And all that jazz. In short, it was a typical Bob Fosse entertainment.


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