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I've seen two versions of Bob Fosse's blazing musical in the last three months - SD Musical Theatre and Welk Resort , both pyrotechnical - and am even more convinced Chicago is his American Cabaret. In both, standards are sinking; a slow trickle's become a cascade.

In Cabaret, as more and more brown-shirts terrorize the streets, denizens of the Kit Kat Klub escape into decadence and nihilism. In Chicago, people don't flee, they run toward the light, any light, even just a flicker of glitz, and give it full devotion until the next spark lures them away.

At the Welk, dressed and smiling like the M.C. for the Miss America Pageant, Casey Marshall sings "Razzle Dazzle," one of the most cynical songs in musical theater: "What if your hinges all are rusting?/What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?/ Razzle dazzle em, and they'll never catch wise."

He also means us, watching Chicago and falling for the relentless shine and energy as strange, Beckett-like performers dress in black - fishnet and derby hats, tilted down - and often move in near slow-motion, at once robotic and elastic.

As the visuals and John Kander's jazz- and ragtime-inflected score seduce our eyes and ears, we pay, at best, second-fiddle attention to the menagerie of crimes crossing the stage, and barely hear that "in this town murder is a form of entertainment."

And darn if it isn't! In "Cell Block Tango," incarcerated women give reasons for offing a lover: "Some guys just can't hold their arsenic," says one; "I fired two warning shots - into his head! adds another. The humor's both warped and funny, as when Roxy says "Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," and Velma replies, "boy, you know everybody!"

As we're being superficially entertained by a Prohibition era, "musical vaudeville," we may not hear Fosse's desperate cry, "the whole world's gone low brow!"

In 1975.

The Welk production's first-rate. Director/choreographer Ray Limon has an instinctive feel for the material and has cast accordingly. Justin Gray's five-piece, on-stage band nails every number, and the show moves with seamless fluidity as we follow the bouncing ball of celebrity.

All the principals get big numbers. After a while you can just sit back and enjoy, since each pulls it off with panache: among them, Shaun Leslie Thomas's white-gloved "Mr. Cellophane"; Marshall's slick, cynical "All I Care About (Is Love)"; Valerie Geason's brassy "When You're Good to Mama"; and RC Sands' over-the-tiptop vocal gymnastics as Mary Sunshine.

Fosse does something that movies rarely dare: turn the camera on a performer and leave it there. Her directors do that with (my beloved) Isabelle Huppert, and Daniel Day-Lewis does extended, one-take shots in There Will Be Blood.

Fossee gives his anti-heroines, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, long, soliloquy-like numbers (and the dued "Class"), and keeps the camera rolling. And - doing at least a month's worth of aerobics in two-plus hours - Natalie Nucci and Adrienne Storrs fill every frame with vitality, obvious talent, and gone, jaded eyes loaded with attitude.


Welk Resort Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, playing through June 2.

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