“Welcome Ladies and gentlemen,
you’re about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption,
violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery,
all those things we all hold near and dear to our hearts.”

In the fall of 1995, when the enterprising City Center ENCORES! Series announced its spring season, there were some rumblings of resentment over the selection of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical vaudeville, CHICAGO, as part of the series. After all, in its short existence ENCORES! had produced concert versions of vintage musical from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, including ALLEGRO, CALL ME MADAM, OUT OF THIS WORLD and LADY IN THE DARK; shows that may either have been forgotten and might not be given full-scale revivals, CHICAGO wasn’t really a show that was waiting for a re-discovery.
But there it was, and on May 2, 1996, CHICAGO played its first of 4 performances to a capacity audience that can best be described as jubilant. The starry cast featured Ann Reinking (who also choreographed in the style of Bob Fosse) Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Joel Grey, Marcia Lewis and D. Sabella under the direction of ENCORES! Artistic Director Walter Bobbie and Musical Director Rob Fisher. Critics and audiences alike watched and listened to a show that was so immediate and energizing that by intermission there was talk about moving it straight to Broadway. However, a staged concert with two weeks rehearsal and a full-scale Broadway production are two very different animals. What worked for 4 performances may have been the quality of a “theatrical event” that the audience experienced.
Enter Barry and Fran Weissler, the successful producer of shows ranging from OTHELLO starring Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones to William Finn’s FALSETTOS to the hugely successful revival of GREASE!. After winning a bidding war for the Broadway rights to CHICAGO, they found themselves with a unique challenge – how to change the perception of the show from a fantastic concert experience into a unique and powerful total production of the show.
There was no doubt that the show itself delivered what a Broadway audience craves – gorgeous musical, astounding choreography and truly memorable performance for a cast of stars, but how do you tell the public that this show isn’t just another revival? The answer is marketing. On Sunday, June 23rd, a large advertisement in the New York Times set the tone: this production of CHICAGO wasn’t simply going to be a transfer of a successful concert. The concert was only the inspiration; this was going to be a new production of a show that was going to startle and provoke is by its sheet thrilling showmanship. In the next few months the ads became edgier and more provocative than the standard Broadway audience was use to experiencing. And that was the point. When CHICAGO began preview performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on October 29th, it was a concert no more – here was a fully realized, energized production of a great musical. Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking had refined CHICAGO into a black diamond of a show – sharp, dark and dazzling. Instead of large scenic effects, the production was built around the galvanizing energy and personality of the performers and their songs. And the show was ready to deliver what the artwork promised.
The opening night on November 14 was nothing less than electrifying. Each number was a home run for the performers, and the audience’s cheers kept the show’s pace at a fever pitch. Broadway had rediscovered the greatness that is CHICAGO and embraced it.
The reviews, highlighted by a front page picture in the New York Times (local and national editions) were never less than glowing for every aspect of the production – the performers: “radiant” Ann Reinking (Stearns, USA Today); “sensational” Bebe Neuwirth (Kissell, Daily News); “commanding and funny” James Naughton (Zoglin, Time Magazine); Joel Grey’s “pure show-biz electricity” (Brantley, New York Times); “simply fabulous” Marcia Lewis (Daily News); D. Sabella’s “stunning voice and style” (Daily News); “the delightfully inventive” direction (New York Times); the choreography (“a reminder of a whole lost vocabulary of Broadway dance” – Time Magazine); the designer (“John Lee Beatty’s witty evocation of a giant witness box in a courtroom…down to the last flesh-framing inch of William Ivey Long’s sleek costumes, in shades of black and white, set off by Ken Billington’s expert film noir lighting” – New York Times) and the orchestra under the “sublime” leadership of Rob Fisher (New York Times).

As for CHICAGO itself, the critics acknowledged that here was a show that had truly been ahead of its time (“A musical for the ages” – New York Times.) And as Vincent Canby said in his ecstatic Sunday Times review, “Even the Kander and Ebb score so suddenly revealed to be on par with – and maybe even better than – the scores for CABARET and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. Mr. Kander’s music, which makes free use of Dixieland, rag, soft-shoe, and jazz jolts the senses one minute and a few minutes later, soothes then with harmonies of irresistible sweetness, which act as counterpoint to some of the most caustic lyrics Mr. Ebb has ever written.”
It may have taken Mr. Canby and his fellow critics twenty years to fully appreciate CHICAGO, but better late than never. This production doesn’t negate the original one than was so superbly realized by Bob Fosse and company – it celebrates the artistry that created it; the sheer guts and glory that is the American Musical.
(1996, Bill Rosenfield)
Act One: As the OVERTURE ends, we’re introduced to Velma Kelly — a vaudevillian who shot the other half of her sister act when she caught her husband with her sister. Velma invites us to sample ALL THAT JAZZ while showing us the story of chorus girl Roxie Hart’s cold-blooded murder of nightclub regular Fred Casely. Roxie convinces her husband Amos that the victim was a burglar, and he cheerfully takes the rap.
Roxie expresses her appreciation in song (FUNNY HONEY) until the police reveal to Amos that Roxie knew the burglar, shall we say, intimately, and Amos decides to let her swing for herself. Roxie’s first taste of the criminal justice system is the women’s block in Cook County Jail, inhabited by Velma and other merry murderesses (CELL BLOCK TANGO). The women’s jail is presided over by Matron “Mama” Morton whose system of mutual aid (WHEN YOU’RE GOOD TO MOMMA) perfectly suits her clientele. She has helped Velma become the media’s top murderer-of-the-week and is acting as booking agent for Velma’s big return to vaudeville (after her acquittal, naturally.)
Velma is not happy to see Roxie, who is stealing not only her limelight but her lawyer, Billy Flynn. Eagerly awaited by his all-girl clientele, Billy sings his anthem, complete with a chorus of fan-dancers to prove that (quote) (ALL I CARE ABOUT IS LOVE.) Billy takes Roxie’s case and re-arranges her story for consumption by sympathetic tabloid columnist Mary Sunshine, who always tries to find A LITTLE BIT OF GOOD in everyone. Roxie’s press conference turns into a ventriloquist act with Billy dictating a new version of the truth (WE BOTH REACHED FOR THE GUN) while Roxie mouths the words. Roxie becomes the new toast of Chicago and Velma’s headlines, trial date and career are left in the dust. Velma tries to talk Roxie into recreating the sister act (I CAN’T DO IT ALONE) but Roxie turns her down, only to find her own headlines replaced by the latest sordid crime of passion. Separately, Roxie and Velma realize there’s no one they can count on but themselves (MY OWN BEST FRIEND), and the ever-resourceful Roxie decides that being pregnant in prison would put her back on the front page.
Act Two: Back after the ENTR’ACTE, Velma cannot believe Roxie’s continual run of luck (I KNOW A GIRL) despite Roxie’s obvious falsehoods (ME AND MY BABY). A little shy on the arithmetic, Amos proudly claims paternity, and still nobody notices him, MR. CELLOPHANE. Velma desperately tries to show Billy all the tricks she’s got planned for her trial (WHEN VELMA TAKES THE STAND). Billy’s forte may be showmanship (RAZZLE DAZZLE), but when he passes all Velma’s ideas on to Roxie, down to the rhinestone shoe buckles, Mama and Velma lament the demise of CLASS. As promised, Billy gets Roxie her acquittal but, just as the verdict is given, some even more sensational crime pulls the pack of press bloodhounds away, and Roxie’s fleeting celebrity is over. Left in the dust, she pulls herself up and extols the joys of life NOWADAYS. She teams up with Velma in that sister act (NOWADAYS), in which they dance their little hearts out (HOT HONEY RAG) ’til they are joined by the entire company for the grand FINALE.

Plot summary by Bill Rosenfield (c)1997 BMG Music and have been excerpted from the Chicago The Musical Broadway Cast Recording, BMG selection number 09026-68727-2/4

The Italian edition of CHICAGO (adapted by Giorgio Calabrese) opened in Milan, at Teatro Ventaglio Nazionale on February,24 2004, with a starry cast featuring MARIA LAURA BACCARINI as Roxie Hart, LORENZA MARIO as Velma Kelly and LUCA BARBARESCHI as Billy Flynn.



Photo by Catherine Ashmore