Terra C. MacLeod and cast in Chicago(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Terra C. MacLeod and cast in Chicago
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
That the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse musical Chicago is a great show on the basis of the material itself has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The current Broadway revival, based on an acclaimed City Center Encores! presentation, is in the ninth year of its run -- this despite the fact that it's really a glorified concert version of the musical with basic black costumes and no sets or props to speak of. (John Lee Beatty is the set designer, William Ivey Long the costumer.)

Indeed, such a solid hit is this Barry & Fran Weissler production that it spurred the filming of the most successful Hollywood adaptation of a Broadway musical in decades. (Thank you, Rob Marshall!) There have also been several national tours of the show, one of which is now on view at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

It's no surprise that, as seen in NJPAC's gorgeous Prudential Hall, Chicago is still a winner. The best performances in the show are given by Michelle DeJean as the fame-obsessed Roxie Hart, Kevin Carolan as her compliant husband Amos, and Carol Woods as the worldly prison matron Mama Morton. DeJean is a triple threat singer-dancer-actress, plus she's a cutie pie. (My theater companion and I agreed that she looks a lot like Debra Messing.)

Carolan manages the neat trick of playing a man who everyone "looks right through" without actually disappearing; on the contrary, he offers an endearing, well-rounded characterization of Amos. Woods plays Mama as less tough and a lot more fun than previous exponents of the role, and her rendition of "When You're Good to Mama" is marked by some scintillating jazz shadings. Less persuasive is Greg Evigan as Billy Flynn; although the one-time TV star looks right for the role and sings well, there's a smirk on his face for almost the entire show. (Occasional displays of anger, impatience, boredom, and so on would have been nice.)

The most idiosyncratic performance in the show is given by Terra C. MacLeod as Velma; she dances like a pro and is sexy in a hard-bitten sort of way, but her vocal performance is extremely weird. MacLeod's program bio informs us that she played Velma in the French production of Chicago in Montreal and lists several other Canadian credits, so I'm guessing that she may be French Canadian. At any rate, it certainly sounds as though English is not her first language, and her indescribably strange accent distracts attention from the more successful aspects of her performance. A similar problem affects R. Bean, who adopts a pretentiously fruity, largely unintelligible manner of speech as Mary Sunshine. Adding insult to injury, Bean continually strays off pitch in the showcase aria "A Little Bit of Good."

A 13-piece band plays Ralph Burns's fabulous orchestrations well under conductor Vincent Vanuele, but this high level of professionalism is not matched by the work of director Walter Bobbie. At the performance I attended, the cast played the show's comic bits so broadly that they ended up not being funny at all. I have no way of knowing when Bobbie last checked up on this tour, but he or a deputy should do so very soon, as the company members obviously need someone to keep them in line.

Ann Reinking's choreography "in the style of Bob Fosse" has been recreated here by Gary Chryst with some cuts and revisions; a neat traveling step is missing from the "Cell Block Tango," replaced by a less demanding "musical chairs" bit, and there are no cartwheels in the "Hot Honey Rag." This isn't the best production of Chicago you'll ever see, but it is highly enjoyable overall.