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All That Jazz

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Shubert Theater, until May 30

Music by John Kander

Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse

Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins

Directed by Walter Bobbie

Choreography by Ann Reinking after the original choreography by Bob Fosse

With Ann Reinking, Ruthie Henshall, Adrian Zmed, Bruce Winant

Chicago is a curious mixture of old and new, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. Originally directed and choreographed by legendary Bob Fosse, this musical by Kander and Webb (Cabaret) failed on Broadway in 1975. Now, with the original lead Ann Reinking reworking Fosse’s choreography and Walter Bobbie directing the show as a stylishly demented vaudeville act, Chicago triumphally returned to the stage. Two things are clear: first, twenty years ago it failed not because of artistic shortcomings but because it was way ahead of its time; and second, right now it might be getting a bit too old.

First and foremost, this is a Bob Fosse show, and this shows in every dance step, every stretch, leap, body arch, twist of the limb, and turn of the head. Reinking, whose choreography operates squarely in the Fosse mold, creates many a dazzling display of bodies in rest and motion, and sometimes a well-placed isolation - like a moment when the dancer is completely still and moving only one finger -- works wonders.

There’s also style, and style to spare. Chicago looks starkly postmodern, with the orchestra occupying most of the stage, and the performers confined to the narrow stretch at extreme downstage. In addition, costumes are all mesh and sheer and tight and jet black, with only a couple of brilliant spots of white. The production mostly works as a presentation, rather than presenting an enveloping environment: the world of Chicago is an artistic statement of in-your-face hyper-reality, as stylized as it gets.

Good thing too, because the story is utterly incapable of carrying the show all by itself. There’s nothing wrong with the story of Roxie Hart killing her lover and then manipulating public opinion and media all the way to and through the trial; but there’s just not enough of this story.

The unfolding narrative is slowly paced and rather predictable. I’m certain that twenty-four years ago it felt daring and iconoclastic; now it feels somewhat obvious. Kicking media is really nothing new, and for all the time Chicago spends firing its shots at this particular target, it feels like entirely too easy an aim.

That’s why the style is essential, and that’s why Chicago works, for most of its running time: the style occupies the space that would otherwise feel empty. This is a usual problem with sarcasm, and Chicago has sarcasm and attitude to spare: very often, there’s nothing behind it. This show is short on story and long -- very long -- on attitude, with all the acting being directly aimed at the audience, with seemingly nothing going on behind the facades of cheerful murderers and liars.

Kander and Webb are clearly aware of this, and they give Roxie an extended number late in the first act when she opens up, and gives, directly to the audience, all the workings of her psyche. It’s a good try, but it only works further to illuminate her emptiness. The problem is, every other character in Chicago is as empty as Roxie; and I’m not asking for someone to identify or sympathize with. I’m asking for someone who can’t be described in one sentence. Unfortunately, all the characters can be neatly summarized in just a few words, from the media-savvy lawyer Billy Flynn to the downtrodden husband Amos Hart to the gregarious prison warden “Mama” Morton. The only glorious exception is Ruthie Henshall as sinuous ex-showgirl double murderess Velma Kelly, who supplies the show’s best voice, best moves, and the most interesting character.

But it’s still a Kander and Webb show, and for most of its running time the songs are all aces, from the immortal opener “All That Jazz” to the elaborately hilarious “Cell Block Tango” to Flynn’s self-praising anthem “All I Care About is Love” to Amos crooning “Mr. Cellophane”. Chicago reaches its extended pinnacle in the showstopping “Razzle Dazzle”, a combination of a circus show, a burlesque act, and a murder trial. The combination of visuals, choreography, and the sinuous jazzy verve of the musical score is utterly irresistible.

After that, the show falls apart rather pitifully, for several reasons. Chicago tries to end up with the moral, and to get to this moral it has to sacrifice its dramatic arc and any momentum and intensity gained so far. Also, Ann Reinking herself, playing the lead, is really not as good as her own choreography requires. This can be chalked to the fact that Reinking had to step in the last moment to replace the injured Sally Duncan, with little time for rehearsal, but the result is still rather dispiriting. Reinking’s dancing is really not crisp and exact enough, so when the finale pairs her with vastly superior Henshall, the result is discouraging. It’s also rather low-spirited, with the last couple of musical numbers being too short and too bland. As the result, Chicago, for all its initial bang, ends with a whimper.