From the start, Chicago signals its descent into the urban underbelly. Just before the curtain, a guy brandishing a tommy gun struts out to threaten any spectators with beeping watches or crinkly wrappers. "Annie is over," he proclaims. And it's true: no saccharine tunes about a glorious tomorrow in this show.
The scene is Chicago in the 1920s, where criminals are treated like royalty, especially if they're dames. And Chicago the musical (created by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse) presents a notorious murderess, times two. Velma Kelly (Kelly Moore) shot her sister for sleeping with Velma's husband -- and then rubbed out hubby, too. Roxie Hart (Taryn Darr) cheated on her husband Amos (Frank Jewett), then shot her lover -- he had threatened to cheat on her, after all. For good measure, she pins the murder on the unsuspecting Amos.
Both of these broads are frantic for the limelight -- and the conceit of Chicago is that we are meant to admire them for it. At the end of the evening, the murderous-but-still-popular Velma addresses us directly: "Roxie and I want to thank you," she says, "for your faith and for your belief in our innocence." But we believed in their innocence because we wanted to: If Velma and Roxie remain entertaining and immaculate, we can enjoy their spectacle guilt-free. Chicago's indictment is ultimately directed right at us: As long as it's amusing, we'll willfully ignore anyone's wrongdoing.
Amid all this violent assertion of ego, one character tends to get lost, and he's the most selfless one of the whole bunch, Jewett's Amos Hart, Roxie's naive husband. Amos, in his wide-eyed, knucklehead way, loves Roxie deeply (without, however, really knowing her at all). But selfless people like Amos create obligations. We owe them something, and we don't like that. In contrast, look at attention-grabbers like Velma and Roxie: They provide distractions and entertainment, even as they demonstrate that we're not as bad as some people -- not like these double-crossing adulterous murderers.
Gullible, easily impressed, seemingly immune from cynicism, it's characters like Amos who bestow celebrity on small-time, lusting-for-fame crooks like Roxie and Velma. It's the Amos inside all of us who watches Survivor, reads the National Enquirer and gossips about the latest roommate squabbles on MTV, willingly snookered all the way. Without fans, there is no fame.
Jewett, in a second-act show-stopper, provides something of an explanation. In "Mister Cellophane," he elicits sympathy, much as John C. Reilly did in the recent movie: "you can look right through me / Walk right by me / And never know I'm there." Poor ego-less Amos. Yet just when you think he's content to be trampled by everybody, Jewett belts out a final crescendo that has everyone in the auditorium sitting up and taking notice. It's a phenomenal moment.
For all the flashy dancing and crooning that Chicago requires -- and which the CdA cast supplies -- the show seriously wants us to sit in judgment of these con men and women. There's little pretense that we're in anything other than a theater: This is a show. The set is minimal -- a few bars to suggest jail cells, a stairway, some arches with marquee lights -- and the dozen band members are right up there onstage. Musical director Deborah Hansen even takes part in the acting, as if to underscore how very theatrical all this is. These characters are performers.
Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse's book uses narrators to frame scenes, distancing us from any emotional investment in the scenes. Furthermore, the broad acting of the cell block girls (wonderfully lit by Michael McGiveney) and, especially, of Roxie and Fred Casely (Christopher Moll) when Roxie tells jurors what "really" happened at the murder scene -- all combine to distance us from the spectacle of all this Jazz Age mayhem.
Yet another indication that Ebb and Fosse are after our love of sensationalism is the character of Mary Sunshine, a reporter who contrives to find a little good in everyone -- even if they are cold-blooded murderers. Director Roger A. Welch hits upon an inventive way to underscore that just as life on the Chicago streets isn't as rosy as little Mary Sunshine would like it to be, appearances and reality don't match up within Mary herself, either. Welch sets up deceptions the way Roxie and Velma do.
Roxie, for example, has to act up a storm. Darr answers all of the role's demands: frightened by the prospect of hanging, ebullient once she establishes her own nightclub show, defiant when she realizes that she'll have to be "My Own Best Friend." One song, "Funny Honey," demands that Darr shift quickly from affection for her husband to outrage at his willingness to give her up to the coppers. "You're a disloyal spouse," she raves, and we chuckle over the irony, even as Darr conveys that it's lost on Roxie.
Moreover, even though she's built like a pixie, Darr expresses Roxie's lust for pleasure right along with her rage for fame. In "Roxie," she and her boys sing about all manner of creature comforts, even as Darr's Roxie reveals her inner Sally Fields: "I love the audience," she says. "And the audience loves me for loving them. And I love them for loving me. And we just love each other. That's because none of us got any love in our childhood." It's pop psychology, but tenderly handled. Whether doing cartwheels or hitting the high notes, Darr's acting impersonates the woman who's both vulnerable and assertive.
As good as Darr and Jewett are, however -- as good as Welch's entire ensemble is -- another (unseen) star has to be choreographer Michael Ericson. Even if the influence of Bob Fosse's original dance steps is inescapable, Ericson has his troupe trained with precision. Especially in such numbers as "When Velma Takes the Stand" (Velma's rehearsal before her hoped-for courtroom appearance) and "Me and My Baby" (Roxie's actual performance in front of reporters, a stab at gaining sympathy), every single dancer was in sync -- not just in literal time, but in emotional expression, too.
Just before intermission, Velma and Roxie sing about how each of them needs to act like "My Own Best Friend."
But we're their friends, too: We'll condone whatever they do as long as they entertain us. It is the special achievement of Roger Welch's Chicago that all the energy and acrobatics and musicality -- all the cynicism, too -- fully emerge in the best CdA summer musical in years.