Some shows are like wines: They need to be opened at just the right time.
When "Chicago" debuted on Broadway in 1975, even the star power of Gwen Verdon and co-author and choreographer Bob Fosse could only do so much to sell a project that was completely out of tune with America's attitude. In the wake of Watergate and the resignation of president Richard M. Nixon, audiences were resistant to the John Kander/Fred Ebb musical that celebrates the glory of doing the crime without doing the time, of bamboozling the public into believing ridiculous, manufactured melodrama instead of looking for the truth.
Commercially and critically, "Chicago" was eclipsed by "A Chorus Line," which hit New York around the same time. By the time "Chicago" ran its course two years later, it was getting stomped by "Annie," which was immediately embraced by theatergoers who wanted optimistic sweetness, not the sour, cynical humor of Ebb and Fosse's adaptation of the 1926 Maurine Dallas Watkins play.
But Fosse and company managed to have the last laugh after all: "Chicago" has broken into in the top 5 on the list of longest running Broadway musicals, and it holds the record for longest running Broadway revival. When it was relaunched in 1996, not long after the circus that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial, "Chicago" suddenly struck a chord with ticket buyers (many of whom, by that point, probably never wanted to see "Annie" again). The saga of "jazz slayer" Roxie Hart and vampy viper Velma Kelly had a resonance that wasn't there two decades earlier — and the rollicking, ragtime-y Kander and Ebb score didn't exactly hurt business.
The unlikely crowdpleaser returns to the Wharton Center this weekend in a polished production that retains those trademark Fosse shoulder swivels and wrist wriggles, as well as the biting satire of the bloodthirsty media, the lawyers who care more about your check clearing than they do clearing your name and the accused murderesses who worry they might hang, but worry a lot more about not getting the tabloid coverage they insist they deserve.
But while the material still delivers the goods, this version crackles only intermittently. "Chicago" is structured along the lines of a vaudeville show — those who only know director Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning 2002 film might be surprised at how little dialogue and drama there is — and, in this version, some of the acts sizzle while others merely suffice. While there's a lot of polish here, that all-important electricity is not always evident.
When even the swaggering "All That Jazz" can't get the night off to a steamy start, there's clearly something lacking. As Velma, Terra C. MacLeod initially seems to be holding back on the va-va-voom and skimping on the scintillation. She eventually zooms in on the comedy in the character, turning Velma into a neurotic in black nylons who constantly struggles to keep a lid on the jealousy that often bubbles up beneath her too-cool-to-care persona. Statuesque and extremely expressive, MacLeod is often amusing, although Velma never convincingly registers as a femme fatale.
Tracy Shayne has better luck as Roxie, played here as a redheaded spitfire who shoots her lover, dumps her amiable but ineffectual spouse (Ron Orbach) and greets her newfound notoriety with a mixture of blissful bewilderment and an almost scary hunger for publicity. Blessed with a voice that's firm when she needs it to be and suitably fluttery whenever Roxie feels the need to turn on the charm, Shayne succeeds in showing us Roxie's bottomless pit of neediness and her mad little mind that's constantly churning with avaricious schemes.
Roz Ryan brings sassy fire to prison matron Mama Morton, giving her a frisky flirtatiousness. She shimmies, she winks and she even throws in a little Josephine Baker-style teeth baring in her solo number, "When You're Good to Mama"; as a result, the heat that should have been in "All That Jazz" arrives about 20 minutes later.
Both Orbach and Brian O'Brien, as the high-priced lawyer, Billy Flynn, are exceptionally strong, with O'Brien channeling the spirit of Bill Clinton into the body of 1940s MGM star Van Johnson, and Orbach turning "Mr. Cellophane" into comic gold. T.W. Smith's twittering falsetto is used to fine effect in "A Little Bit of Good."
"Chicago" is presented in front of a sprawling bandstand, with only a couple of chairs and a few props (including parasols, silver pom-poms, tambourines and some well-utilized feathery fans). That puts the focus even more squarely on the actors and the hard-working chorus; when everything coalesces, "Chicago" roars — and when it doesn't there's no place for the performers to hide.
The frustration in this "Chicago" comes from its unevenness, with seemingly sure-fire pieces like the raging "Cell Block Tango" falling short (the fury and cutting sarcasm just aren't there) while the high-energy "We Both Reached for the Gun" has genuine punch. The orchestra has the zip and pizzazz that sometimes eludes the show itself, which is closer to "yeah, OK" than it is "yowsah yowsah yowsah."
Wharton Center, MSU
Continues at 8 p.m. Friday, May 13; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 14; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15