By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
In the 1920s, the city of Chicago was riveted by the story of two murderesses, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
The Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins’ columns about their trials excited so much interest, she wrote a play based on them, which became a Broadway hit, and was adapted twice as a movie.
In the 1960s, Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse approached Watkins about adapting the play into a musical, but Watkins, now a born-again Christian, refused, believing her play glamorized decadence.
Upon her death, however, Fosse secured the rights from her estate, and along with composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, created “Chicago: the Musical,” the glamorous, decadent hit we know today (at the Keller Auditorium through Sept. 8).
A pitch black satire, it’s somewhat amazing this play has achieved the popular status it enjoys.
As a work of style, it’s nearly flawless. Gorgeous dancers, female and male, in all black, move beautifully and suggestively in front of a black orchestra stand, designed to recall a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
The opening number, “All That Jazz,” introduces a hedonism-above-all philosophy that promises a voyeuristic joyride.
The story itself offers little joy, however, and scant emotion otherwise.
Roxie Hart (the fantastic Paige Davis) is jailed for shooting a lover who’s spurned her. In jail she meets Velma Kelly (a brassy Terra MacLeod), a fellow murderess, who’s parlaying her notoriety into the vaudeville career she plans to pursue if acquitted.
The newly notorious Roxie hopes to do the same, creating a rivalry between the two.
The women are aided by immoral lawyer Billy Flynn (a suave, avuncular John O’Hurley), whose interest in them extends no further than his $5,000 fee.
Part of the play’s fun is how it doubles as a backstage drama. Flynn scripts and directs Roxie, who performs for the press, most notably in the kinetic ventriloquist number “We Both Reached for the Gun.”
Unfortunately, the play, and its characters, care so little about the stakes at hand, which include hanging, that it’s hard for the audience to find an investment in what happens to them.
Moments which could be sincere (“My Own Best Friend”) are lampooned and moments which seem psychotic (“Me and My Baby”) are played for laughs.
What’s fascinating is how the play both predates and predicts today’s celebrity-obsessed, TMZ-culture.
While Roxie loathes her gullible husband Amos, she sings with a kind of guileless joy and longing about the fame she hopes for, in her confessional number “Roxie.”
Both Velma and Billy sing odes to manipulating the public through stagecraft in “When Velma Takes the Stand” and “Razzle Dazzle.”
These numbers have an energy and pop that sweep the audience up. The fact that they completely elide questions of guilt, innocence, conscience or sincerity, though, given their settings, leave them feeling a little hollow.
Roxie Hart is such a memorable character, in part, because of her lack of cynicism in the midst of such a story. While Velma and Billy approach their situations with a grim darkness, Roxie is all open eyes and high hopes.
Davis captures this perfectly, and is a joy to watch whenever she’s on stage.
O’Hurley is a bit of a celebrity himself, having played Elaine’s boss J. Peterman on “Seinfeld.” His entrance drew rapt applause from the crowd when I attended, and his blend of gravitas and absurdity was spot on for the role.
Other standouts included Carol Woods as Mama, and chorus member Shamicka Benn-Moser, who brought a wonderful physicality to each of her appearances.
The show itself offers endless eye candy, and songs that stick in one’s head.
The only morals and heart on display, though, are the ones Flynn and Roxie fabricate for the reporters and jury.
Maybe I’m a sucker, but I wanted a few for myself.
“Chicago: the Musical” at the Keller Auditorium through Sept. 8.