A revival does not run for more than twenty-one years without a good reason. Sometimes, long-running shows survive because they are inexpensive to put on, appeal to coach parties and teachers looking for an afternoon out of school with their students. Other long runners are small productions that can fill a tiny theater.
None of the above is the case with the multi-award earning, Tony-winning revival of Kander and Ebb’s classic account of murder and mayhem in Chicago of the 1920s. Second only to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s timeless Phantom of the Opera when it comes to a continuous run in a Broadway Theater, Chicago is one of those creations that remains fresh whether it is your first viewing or your tenth trip.
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A True Story Brought To Musical Life
The story is based on a true-life play written by a Chicago journalist, Maurine Dallas Watkins. Bearing the same title, this is straight production about the murders, crimes and criminals about which Watkins reported for the Chicago Tribune. It is also a savage satire about the corruption of the then criminal justice system and the entire concept of the celebrity trial. A trend was established whereby the male jurors would acquit females facing the death penalty for their alleged crimes.
Kander and Ebb’s musical adaptation focuses on the character of Roxie Hart. With the book written by Ebb and Bob Fosse (whose choreography set the world on fire), the play uses the concept of being based in a 1920s Vaudeville Club. The story is introduced by Velma Kelly, a woman who murdered her husband and sister when she found them in bed together. Roxie’s story of murdering her lover gradually comes to the fore. Initially, Roxie claims that the victim was a burglar, and gets her husband to take the blame, as told in the song ‘Funny Honey’. But the truth comes out and Roxie joins Velma in the cells, where the women are watched over by the corrupt matron of the block, Mama Morton.
Mama organizes Vaudeville slots for both Roxie and Velma, and tensions arise between the two as they seek to become the biggest celebrity. But, in an ironic twist, their moment in the spotlight is brief, and the two discover the errors of their ways.
The plot tells a decent story, and the exposure of the corrupt institutions of the 1920s is both funny and dark. It has a resonance in a time where the President blames the FBI for concentrating on possible Russian involvement in the presidential election when they should have been watching young misfits in Florida.
But the main reason for making your way to the Ambassador Theater is to hear the brilliantly crafted, often savagely funny songs; and to see Bob Fosse’s still stunning choreography, lovingly recreated by Ann Reinking.
The cast, too, is fresh and lively. Reality TV and music star Kandi Burros is playing Mama Morton in the short run and brings energy and terrific vocals to the part. The other three leading parts are all performed with zest, spice, and extreme professionalism by the expert actors. Sometimes, in long-running shows, the energy levels can fall, and actors begin to walk through their roles, leaving the driver in the dressing room. Not with Chicago, where the entire company is spot on. Bianca Marroquin is excellent as Roxie Hart – quite where she finds such dynamism show after show is hard to determine. As her lawyer, Billy Flynn, Tom Hewitt brings his vast experience to bear. Having played leading roles in everything from Othello to the Rocky Horror Show – his Frank’n’Furter was truly something to behold – he shows his versatility in portraying the cynicism of Flynn. Meanwhile, Velma’s sardonic insecurity is perfectly represented by Amra-Faye Wright – who sings with gusto and considerable ability.
Wright has been playing the part on and off for as long the revival has been running. She has performed opposite no less than twenty Roxie Harts!
On top of the actors’ great performances, Chicago is a visual treat. The stripped-back set, hinting at a rundown Vaudeville club, sees the band visible on stage throughout. Costumes and scenery help to take the audience back to the age through the dominant use of black and white. Dancers push to the limits of what is acceptable in a family show, wearing scanty costumes and tipping their bowler hats seductively. Indeed, for a storyline mired in murder and corruption, a great time is had by all – including the performers themselves.
That liveliness makes it suitable for young and old. Children with an interest in musical theatre will love the huge set pieces, the rapid pace at which the story progresses. Certainly, some of the themes might make parents squirm a little, as may some of the languages, but no more so than when watching most early evening TV shows these days.
The Ambassador Theater was built in the early 1920s, and that adds to the ambiance. It is found on 219 West 49th Street in the heart of Broadway. Being an old building, disabled access is a little limited – those needing easy access should contact the theater for advice on tickets. Its 1100 seat capacity makes it just small enough to remain intimate, and the big numbers are so all-encompassing that seats anywhere – mezzanine or orchestra – will deliver a good experience. For a treat, try to get one of the eight boxes. The view is not as great as the front of the mezzanine or the center of the stalls, but for atmosphere and a sense of moving back in time, a box provides an extra sense of perspective.
How To Get Tickets
Performances are Monday to Saturday at 8.00 pm (no Wednesday performances) and 7.30 pm on Sunday. There are weekend matinees at 2.30 pm. Tickets start at $49.50 for the small number of standing positions, and from $69.00 for the rear mezzanine. Most of the stalls and the front mezzanine are available for $139 from Broadway.com. However, expect to have to book well in advance to get the best seats. It is a popular show, especially at weekends, and there is often little availability at short notice. However, Seatgeek.com has decent seats from $89 and front mezzanine tickets from $122. StubHub.com is good for last minute seats, although the cost of these increases. On the day, expect to pay around $250 for a good spot. Book a little further ahead and prices drop to $95 and upwards.
Chicago is very much one of those must-see shows, which, once watched, will most probably turn into a ‘must-see again’ theatrical experience.