Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” hit Broadway, no show seemed more staunchly American than “Chicago” — the clever musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb with Bob Fosse that opened Tuesday at the Kentucky Center.
The first Broadway production ran two years after its 1975 opening, but the revival, which opened in 1996 with choreography by Ann Reinking based on Fosse’s, is still running — making it the longest running American musical on Broadway.
Fosse died in 1987, but this story and the concoction he created with Kander and Ebb remains pure Americana. It’s a world stirred with sexuality and cynicism about justice and show business as well as life and death.
What defines “Chicago” is Fosse’s notable choreography from the opening in “All That Jazz,” with Velma Kelly (Lana Gordon). She sings while rolling a shoulder or a knee out in isolation – a classic Fosse move – all rather nonchalantly. Her voice has a bit of brass and her moves are cool.
Velma is in jail for murdering her husband and sister. Set in the Jazz Age long before any ideas of any kind of #MeToo movement, women imprisoned for murder in all kinds of circumstances stood very little chance of justice or empathy. Along with them are many who killed lovers or spouses in crimes of passion for philandering. Behind those bars, the imprisoned women of “Chicago” sing, “they had it coming” in the rousing “Cell Block Tango,” which kicks the show’s energy into a higher gear.
From the moment the married Roxie Hart (Dylis Croman) fires a gun at her lover, the show begins to reveal part of Chicago’s crime scene. Then it spins on to a merry-go-round of fame that attorney Billy Flynn (Jeff McCarthy) has learned to master.
Croman’s Roxie Hart carries cunning, as she must, but has enough naiveté to maintain sympathy. She and the male cast flank the stage for “Me and My Baby;” Croman’s voice shines throughout the quick-paced music and she nails all the crazy dance moves.
As flashy lawyer Billy Flynn, Jeff McCarthy has the political slickness of a showman with a snowy white mane of hair, white teeth that gleam to the back rows of the theater and a booming, baritone voice that sings to “All I Care About (Is Love)” and “Razzle Dazzle.” McCarthy doesn’t overemphasize his role, but plays it straight. This is his day job, after all.
On the other end of the spectrum is Amos Hart — Roxie’s dimwitted husband — played by Paul Vogt. Vogt’s portrayal becomes more human with “Mr. Cellophane,” as his character finds confidence when he moves about the stage to describe his invisibility to the world.
The dance in this production never fails. The kicks are sharp. The slight wrist twists and curl of the fingers have that sly Fosse feel. There are the tipped hats. It is luscious.
In one particularly evocative segment, Roxie sings to her cuckold husband Amos to convince him to pay the steep fee for Billy Flynn in “A Tap Dance.” Three men dance in the shadows behind Roxie, like ghostly figures of Fosse himself when he was a dancer. They rub their fingers together in sinister manner. The effect is subtle but electrifying.
In the cellblock, Roxie becomes the media darling, overshadowing Velma and her case. Overlooking the two and the rest of the women is Matron “Mama” Morton (Jennifer Fouché), who spices her professional philosophy in “When You’re Good to Mama” with vocal frills.
Mama and others in “Chicago” aren’t really limited to a city or at time — and therein lies a large part of the success because it contains a reflection of our society today. Even when Billy is stepping across the stage in numbers surrounded by gorgeous women, it all seems so familiar — so cyclical and so cynical.
“Chicago,” with book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, runs through Sunday, Jan. 28 , at the Kentucky Center as part of the Broadway in Louisville series. More information: louisville.broadway.com or www.kentuckycenter.org.