Chicago (1975) is on everyone's short list for best American musical. The Oscar-winning movie (2002) has a clear and engaging story line but never captures the dynamic charm of the musical's many dance scenes, on full display in the electric revival now running at the Broadway Theatre of Pitman.
The set design of Shawn McGovern discards conventional scene changes. All you see is the 10-piece orchestra of musical director Jack Hill and orchestrator Carmine Bello, boldly framed in colored lights in the center back stage. It is the continual song and dance numbers that drive the production.
Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse teamed up to write lyrics and book, based on the crime reporting and play of Maurine Dallas Watkins. The story centers on two actual female murderers in Chicago of the 1920s. Do the scales of justice stay in balance when it comes to glamorous showbiz women?
Director Drew Molotsky keeps his characters stepping out to the pounding, Jazz Age music of John Kander. Sporting Kate Edelson's flapper costumes, his ensemble of hungering men and leggy women revel in the Fosse-inspired choreography of Heather Mattingley Grasso.
Kelly Beamer and Caroline Purdy star as seductive show girls, Velma and Roxie. The older hoofer, Velma, murdered her cheating husband and sister. She crisscrosses the stage all night, but cannot shed competition from wannabe starlet, Roxie, who murdered her own lover.
Both seek out unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Matt Reher) to get off the hook. Typical of Ebb's urbanity and brio, Flynn sings "Razzle Dazzle" lyrics: Long as you keep'em off balance / How can they spot you've got no talents? / Razzle Dazzle 'em/…And they'll make you a star.
A dizzying parade of song and dance numbers builds up the image of an incoherent world. Corrupt prison matron Mama Morton (Elenore Thomas) sings "When You're Good to Mama." Mary Sunshine (C. Newcomer) is an ethically confused news reporter in "A Little Bit of Good." And Roxie's sad-sack husband, Amos (Michael Schmidt), admits the hard truth in "Mr. Cellophane."
Storytelling takes a back seat to spectacle, as the energetic Pitman show celebrates a defining work of theater. Chicago deliberately transforms the art of vaudeville into a metaphor for riotous 1920s Chicago. Today, the musical is bigger than ever. Not only is the satire of celebrity justice still timely, but our modern world has tossed the grotesquerie of social media politics into the mix … Razzle Dazzle 'em, and they'll make you a star.