The best pair of legs on Broadway at the moment belongs to Melanie Griffith, who’s gotten plenty of publicity for taking over the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago while hubby Antonio Banderas womanizes as Guido Contini in Nine diagonally across West 49th Street. The rest of Griffith, slithered into William Ivey Long’s Victoria’s Secret-like black lingerie, is enough to bring Manhattan rush-hour traffic to even more of a standstill than usual.
What’s odd about Griffith’s Great White Way bow is how often she seems uncertain about what to do with those block-long gams of hers. For much of the long-running tuner’s first act, she shuffles awkwardly from one foot to the other like a wallflower at the prom. She certainly doesn’t throw herself into the dance routines, which seem to have been toned down for her from those that Bob Fosse originally tailored like a body suit for Gwen Verdon. (These were later reworked by Ann Reinking for herself). If in fact they have been toned down severely for Griffith, this is obviously a risky precedent to set.
In theory, Griffith would seem an ideal choice for Roxie: The little girl voice that has been a charm in many of her movie roles and limited her in others is appropriate for the naïvely homicidal Chicago chorine who shoots her boyfriend and spends her jail time planning a nightclub act and waiting to go to trial. Truth to tell, though Griffith is no terpsichorean bombshell, her casting can hardly be considered a mistake on the part of producers Barry and Fran Weissler, who have turned finding Broadway replacements into a clever box office game over the past decade or two.
Remember, Verdon also had kewpie-doll pipes but knew how to make her cutesie-poo sound register when singing. Perhaps the biggest difference between her and Griffith — aside from their respective dancing skills — is conviction. Wearing a wan smile under the spiked coiffeur she’s been affecting of late, Griffith seems tentative on stage; she gives the impression of not knowing how to be in front of an audience and alongside actors who at no time expect to hear the word “cut.” She appears to be at something of a loss about what to do, how to maximize her assets, how to look comfortable and assured. Perhaps she’s understandably daunted at joining the company of Broadway-savvy players that populates Chicago.
There are many moments when Griffith seems to intersect with the character of Roxie Hart. When these occur, something in Griffith catches fire or, at least, starts to smolder. This is particularly true during Roxie’s monologue about a long-held desire to have a vaudeville act of her own. Possibly, this perky peroration connects because Griffith is thinking about how she’s always wanted to act in live theater.
The theater neophyte is also crisp throughout “We Both Reached for the Gun,” when she mostly has to mouth the words of Roxie’s justification for snuffing her beau; it’s fast-talking lawyer Billy Flynn (Brent Barrett, currently) who speak-sings them. This isn’t an easy number, and Griffith helps bring it off smartly. She definitely shows improvement in Act II as she glides easily enough through “Me and My Baby” and the tightly choreographed “Nowadays,” which has her and Velma Kelly (now Deirdre Goodwin) working in such proximity that they seem to have become Siamese twins. By the denouement, when Roxie has been acquitted but also discarded as yesterday’s news, Griffith has a touching minute or two in which she evidences the vulnerability that has marked her best film portrayals.
When assessing Griffith’s potential, the phrase “a matter of time” comes to mind. (Whether there’s enough time may be questionable, since her staying beyond October, when Banderas leaves Nine, doesn’t seem the likeliest prospect.) Had Griffith been tapped for the Chicago flick, she might have looked every bit as good as or better than Renée Zellweger, who had the benefit of many takes and editing-room wizardry — supervised by director-choreographer Rob Marshall — to cover her deficiencies as a singer-dancer.
And speaking of the Oscar-winning movie: The effect it’s had on the Walter Bobbie-directed stage version is amazing. Cynics predicted that the big-screen opus would mean the end of the show’s Gotham run, but the opposite has occurred for this Encores!-originated revival. With John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, Ken Billington’s lighting, and David Thompson’s script adaptation, the show is now an SRO proposition. (The Weisslers got even luckier at lengthening the run when the Gypsy revival forced them to cart Chicago from the Shubert to the Ambassador, which is smaller by nearly 400-seats). During intermission, audience members may be heard debating the comparative merits of the live and canned treatments.
Repeat Chicago-goers can also compare and contrast the original and subsequent casts with the one now on view, and no shame attaches there. The present players, few of whom have been around since the opening but many of whom have ankled and then returned, look to be performing as if every night is a first night. Brent Barrett may be the best Billy Flynn yet: He’s got matinee-idol looks, a baritone with enough strength to support the rebuilt downtown Manhattan area, and a shark’s flash in his eye and grin. Deirdre Goodwin has arms and legs so sinuous that octopuses are probably expressing underwater envy about them. With Roxy doing much less in the dance department, she’s set off in even higher relief during “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” In the role of “Mama” Morton, Camille Saviola lives up to the first two syllables of her surname, as always. P.J. Benjamin as the belittled Amos Hart tugs the audiences’ heartstrings and triggers as much applause for “Mister Cellophane” as any of his predecessors. D. Sabella is back in Mary Sunshine’s wig with supersonic notes intact.
It would be unfair to end a review of Chicago without stressing once again the consistent quality of the songs that John Kander and Fred Ebb generously provided for it, which Ralph Burns orchestrated with his standards unadulterated. At several points, one blockbuster number is directly followed by another. Not everyone can bring off such chutzpah, but Kander and Ebb do because they’re endlessly inventive and determined not to repeat themselves. By the way: One of the delights of Chicago on stage is that songs dropped from the movie — “Class,” for instance — are present and beautifully accounted for. Although Melanie Griffith at times is tottering, the rest of Chicago is toddling.