Review: Chicago, Where the Foul Stench of Infamy Is Still Fresh
Barring another extension, The Phantom of the Opera will close in April and the torch will pass to Chicago as the longest-running show currently on Broadway. The bare-bones revival of this musical of murder and infamy (lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander, and book by Ebb and original director Bob Fosse) has played continuously since 1996 — decades longer than the 1975 original production. One might reasonably expect the show to have entered tourist-trap territory by now, with phoned-in performances for half-awake viewers who picked up their discount tickets at the TKTS booth an hour before curtain. But it's one of the great delights of Broadway in 2023 that the cast and crew of Chicago are still performing like it's opening night.
Maybe it's because the story of Chicago has only appreciated in value in the age of social media, "reality" television, George Santos, and any number of fraudulent celebrities who now occupy prime real estate in our national attention. It's about Roxie Hart (Charlotte d'Amboise), an aging flapper who cheats on her husband (an appropriately pathetic Evan Harrington) with a furniture salesman (Brian O'Brien) and then shoots the bastard when he tries to walk out on her. She hires the unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (James T. Lane) to represent her, and he immediately launches a media blitz designed to throw her case to the court of public opinion. If Roxie plays her cards right, she might even leverage her scandal into a career in vaudeville. But she'll have to contend with his other client, Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright), as well as any murderess-turned-tabloid-celebrity coming into the clink after her.
For a show that is so much about the power of novelty in a fickle culture, Chicago benefits most from the seasoned performances of Wright and d'Amboise, both of whom have appeared regularly in this show since the turn of the century. Hopping with mousy, quirky energy, d'Amboise portrays a Roxie who is not a natural stage presence: She's breathy and excitable, and it seems as though any missed step or dropped line will send her rushing for the inhaler. That makes her sudden fame feel even more like a precious commodity she cannot afford to lose. She plays off the audience during "Roxie" like she's giving a one-night-only concert, and seems to particularly delight in antagonizing Velma, the Cristal Connors to her Nomi Malone. Wright plays the part of old pro well, delivering line readings that are as sharp as her dance moves.
Lane has appeared in several roles in Chicago before assuming the role of Billy Flynn. His rich intonation and disingenuous smile conjure the image of velvet smeared with Kerrygold butter — a combination simultaneously decadent and revolting. One never questions his command of the press, particularly the credulous Mary Sunshine. Ryan Lowe, who has played this part for over a decade, still soars into the rafters with his magnificent countertenor. Additionally, he seems to have been lifting hard since I last saw this production, making his second act reveal even more delightfully subversive.
If the veteran performers are the backbone of Chicago, the celebrity replacements (often derided as "stunt casting") are the lifeblood. Chicago has featured Jerry Springer, Pamela Anderson, Wendy Williams, and no fewer than four Real Housewives. These people bring fresh perspectives (and, crucially, new ticket-buyers) to the Ambassador Theatre. It's smart business and good dramaturgy in a musical that is all about the fleeting enchantment of public attention.
The newest addition to Chicago is Jinkx Monsoon, a double winner of RuPaul's Drag Race and the first drag performer (with apologies to NeNe Leakes) to assume the role of Matron "Mama" Morton. From the wild entrance applause she received during a recent Saturday matinee, it's clear that she's holding up her end of the bargain — and she justifies their enthusiasm with a goosebump-producing rendition of "When You're Good to Mama." One of the great belters presently working on the American stage, Monsoon's voice only seems to have grown since her annual holiday show with BenDeLaCreme. While her exaggerated dialect is more Canarsie than Chicago, Monsoon justifies the choice with a fully realized portrayal of Mama as a grotesque inhabitant of this world of smoke and mirrors, in which the most opportunistic always find a way to profit from tragedy. We easily fill in the backstory.
The excellent ensemble does the rest, creating memorable moments within director Walter Bobbie's staging and the late Ann Reinking's precise Fosse-inspired choreography. Rachel Schur's hilariously novel interpretation of Annie (the inmate charged with poisoning her Mormon husband) suggests a frazzled PTA mom. Christine Cornish's heartfelt turn as Hunyak, the Polish immigrant who professes her innocence, injects gravity into an otherwise frivolous spectacle. And Michael Scirrotto's tour de force as every member of the jury practically steals the scene. All these performances pop within a design scheme (atypically spare set by John Lee Beatty, harshly theatrical lighting by Ken Billington, sexy sheer costumes by William Ivey Long) that establishes the essential mood of the piece with brilliant economy. These are the best tricks of experimental theater applied to a big Broadway musical.
I am typically of the opinion that no show has any business occupying a Broadway house for more than a decade: Theater is ephemeral, and the magic tends to wear off as the years pass and performances become stale. Chicago makes this a difficult position to maintain. Ten thousand performances later, it's still dazzling.