Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp "Second Thoughts" Review
By Les Gutman
The opportunity to revisit one of the great triumphs of Broadway revival history sends the mind racing into overdrive. Chicago, an also-ran of the 1975 theater season that produced A Chorus Line, blew away the competition in its 1996 revival. And for Bebe Neuwirth (starring as murderess Velma Kelly), the revival insures a pedestal in the hall of Broadway's great musical theater women. Now, almost unthinkably, we have a new Velma. Chicago, still playing to near sellouts everywhere it is staged, has proven it has legs. Now, it has legs. And they belong to its new Velma, European cabaret star, Ute Lemper. Lemper arrives on Broadway via her Olivier-winning performance as Velma in London's West End.
So, how are things in Chicago?
Lemper does indeed have an extraordinary pair of legs as well as all of the other attributes that make a great singer-dancer-actor-entertainer. Although I took my seat in the theater intent on comparing her to Bebe Neuwirth, it didn't take long for her to make it clear she is standing in no one's rhinestone-studded shoes but her own. Just as Neuwirth was able to invent Velma without homage or slight to Chita Rivera's original, so Lemper is able to redefine the role.
And the rest of the current production is every bit as good as it was two years ago; in some ways even better.
With a skeleton as powerful as Kander and Ebb's clever masterpiece, Ann Reinking's Fosse-inspired choreography and a concept as pristinely simple as the one in play here, it's difficult to imagine what it would take to make this an unpleasant theatrical experience. But here, none of this is left to chance. Although the stars above the title in this production have all changed, and only one of the "also starring" stars remains (Marcia Lewis as Matron "Mama" Morton), the guts of the superb and memorable original company remains largely intact, and the exceptionally gifted on-stage orchestra remains exactly as it was on opening night but for the replacement of its conductor. This is not insignificant.
What of the significant replacements?
Roxie Hart is now played by Karen Ziemba although, the night we attended, we saw understudy Nancy Hess (who, incidentally, was understudy for both the Roxie and Velma roles when the revival opened). Hess is great, but we obviously can't comment on Ziemba.
Michael Berresse is the newest Billy Flynn. (He is not, however, new to the show; he played Roxie's lover/target Fred Casely in the original cast.) As someone who found James Naughton too robotic, I find the more fleet-footed Berresse closer to the mark. He finds the sardonic line between slick and sleazy better, even if he seems both too young and a bit better looking than Billy ought to be. I still wish I could have seen the real Billy Flynn, as portrayed by Jerry Orbach in the original Broadway company. I guess I'll have to remain content with the goose bumps his rendition of " Razzle Dazzle" still gives me when I listen to that cast album.
What about cellophane Amos Hart? As wonderful as it was to see Joel Grey on Broadway again, enjoying him in this role always required a leap of logic. Monumental but diminutive, he was the mirror image of his character. Tom McGowan, happily, is perfectly cast and totally succeeds in winning the audience's heart.
Finally, there's R. Bean. who has now assumed the mantle of sob sister Mary Sunshine. In appearance and performance, he is thoroughly convincing in this not-to-be-described role.
For those who have not seen Chicago, this should serve as reminder of a glaring omission in your theater-going. For those who have, there's plenty of justification for another visit. With a barrel full of pretentious musicals that aspire to operatic heights, and others that simply reach no heights, Chicago is a beacon to those of us starting to forget what a real musical is.
Editor's Note: The "we" of the above mentioned "the night we attended" was yours truly. (where but at the theater would editors of a theater-zine get together?). Les pinpointed the changes in the show's cast and its unchanging pleasures so perfectly that instead of adding my second thoughts to his, I can only say "Amen!" -- E.S.
LINKS TO ITEMS MENTIONED ABOVE
Original CurtainUp review of Chicago (The background notes at the end include the full cast list for Chicago 1975 as well as 1996).