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The great lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg wrote: "Woe to the culture that woos TV/Where sponsors flourish and songs decay,/Where clay is hailed as cloisonne/And catch-penny poet is sage and seer."

Bob Fosse's Chicago - currently in a fine production at San Diego Musical Theatre - unfolds like an extended commentary on those lines. But Fosse's amped it up so fiercely that, in a "musical vaudeville" about celebrity villains, the real villains are gullible audiences easily swayed by razzle and dazzle.

Critics of the musical, among the most vehement around, accuse it of not having a conventional book and/or a non-specific look.

Mark N. Grant, author of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical: "Director-choreographers choose weak books for the same reasons that some presidential candidates choose weak vice-presidential running mates: so as not to be upstaged.

"More than any other single director, [Fosse] brought the hollow revue style to the Broadway book show with the pretense that it bestowed vision on narrative material."

Fosse's nay-sayers often attack him for what he doesn't do (and possibly for a frenetic lifestyle that forced him to have open-heart surgery during the first week of rehearsals for Chicago). But just what is he doing?

In the guise of a vaudeville, Chicago harrows shallow entertainment. Fosse called the musical "Brecht Lite." In effect, it's his Cabaret, but with the spotlight turned on American culture. Wherever Chicago plays becomes the Kit Kat Klub, where morally numb audiences fall for glittering surfaces and share an appetite for violence rivaling the Roman coliseum.

The Romans kept the "mob" in check by giving them "bread and circuses." But Fosse wanted his "circus" to function like homeopathic medicine: cure a disease with its essence.

Chicago hasn't cured its audiences - oh, Bobby you should see us now! - but has become one of American theater's most vehement outcries. You can almost hear Fosse roar, "Look at yourselves! Don't you GET it?"

The song "Razzle Dazzle" spells it out: "Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it/And the reaction will be passionate./Give 'em the old hocus-pocus: bead and feather 'em. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?"

Fred Ebb, who wrote the lyrics for "Razzle Dazzle," called Fosse "the Prince of Darkness."

Producer, director, and writer Stuart Ostrow said that Fosse accused himself most of all: "If Bob Fosse ever needed a theme song, it would have been 'Razzle Dazzle"...Bobby told me he thought of himself as 'a fraud with a couple of good dance steps.' He was a genius, of course, and died much too soon, leaving a creative musical theater legacy second only to Jerome Robbins."


San Diego Musical Theatre, Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, playing through March 3.

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