Maybe that’s an unfair question. Chicago is all razzle-dazzle, nothing more, and the hit musical rises and falls on how razzling and dazzling its razzle-dazzle can be.
You’ll see plenty of glitz and lots of skin in its latest national tour, which has made its way to Orlando once again with some seasoned names among the cast. What you won’t see is enough of the moxie that bowled over Broadway when this stripped-down revival opened there way back in 1996.
In its current incarnation, the touring show runs like well-oiled machinery, its dancers poised in their classic Bob Fosse stances, its onstage orchestra bold and brassy, its lighting painting the performers a lurid yellow suitable for the tabloid headlines in which they appear. But no matter how smooth and professional this cast, there’s not a whole lot of life on that stage, and the spark the show needs just isn’t there.
Chicago didn’t go over so well in its original incarnation, back in 1975, when audiences were put off by its brash mannerisms (and when a rival show called A Chorus Line came along and stole Broadway’s heart and most of its awards). But 21 years later, theatergoers were ready for Chicago’s cynical take on the world, and a trio of terrific actors – Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and James Naughton – made the lead roles their own.
At first glance, the current tour seems to have that kind of gloss. Brenda Braxton was a Tony nominee for Smokey Joe’s Café and has played Velma Kelly on Broadway off and on for the better part of a decade. Brent Barrett, another familiar Broadway face, has been lawyer Billy Flynn for much of the same time. And Bonnie Langford, a child star in her native England, has played Roxie Hart both on Broadway and in London’s West End.
The three of them have plenty of polish, that’s for sure, but there’s not a lot more there. Braxton makes a sultry Velma, but her performance seems toned down, as if she’s done it too many times. Langford is never the crafty ingénue that Reinking was (or that Renee Zellweger played in the movie version); she comes across as a generic good-time girl, but the humor she needs is missing. And although Barrett has the voice of a radio crooner, his Billy Flynn is more smarmy than cool.
Carol Woods, another Broadway veteran, does bring warmth and a big, terrific voice to the role of Mama Morton. But it’s Tom Riis Farrell who manages to win over the audience with his schlubby Amos Hart, Roxie’s nearly invisible husband. Clad in a shapeless cardigan and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, Farrell looks like he ought to be selling toilet paper on television: He finds the humanity in Amos, and you’re sorry when he leaves the stage.
Of course humanity isn’t what Chicago is about; it’s about pulsating dancers, and sex, and an America more interested in celebrity than anything else. But all of that works only when the sex and the craze for celebrity come off as real – not when they seem to have been phoned in from afar. Surely there’s a time in every musical’s life when there’s a need to call it quits.
What: Touring production of John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical.
Where: Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday June 16-18, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday June 19, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday June 20.
(Photos: Top right, Bonnie Langford and company; middle right, Brenda Braxton and company; bottom left, Carol Woods and Brenda Braxton.)