San Diego Musical Theatre’s knock-out production of Bob Fosse’s Chicago must close Sunday, March 3. If you like your entertainment steamy, decadent — and all that jazz — then sprint, don’t just run, to the Birch North Park Theatre.
The “musical vaudeville” is set in 1929. “In 50 years or so,” sing Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, “It’s gonna change, you know/ But oh, it’s heaven/ Nowadays.” They extol the Jazz Age in song. Men are everywhere, as are booze, life, joy. “Fun, isn’t it?” Well, maybe. But Bob Fosse never met an irony he couldn’t blowtorch into the house seats, the song “Nowadays,” more than most.
The Jazz Age is waning, and Wall Street will crash in October, ushering in the Great Depression. Plus, 50 years later would be 1979. But, since Chicago opened in 1975, on the heels of Watergate, the government had just crashed, which blindsides Roxie and Velma’s optimism all the more.
Not only that, each became a celebrity for murdering her man. Everyone knows they’re guilty as sin, but they got off scot-free and brag that while “a lot of people have lost faith in America...we are living examples of what a wonderful country it is!”
Spotlit and prancing, Roxie and Velma bask in Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Much of the musical’s about their desperate attempts to extend it. The “merry murderesses” think they’ve broken through to stardom. But the law of the city says: “in a couple of weeks, nobody will know who you are. That’s Chicago!”
But that’s not even the half of this musical. Fosse makes no attempt to enhance the story with period details, realistic sets, frilly flappers, or fur coats. Instead, we’re in a nightclub: live band onstage, at least 25 exposed lighting fixtures overhead, performers dressed in black seated on the sides. We watch a vaudeville that parodies great numbers from the past. When un-famous Amos sings “Mister Cellophane,” for example, he wears white gloves, and the song flips Bert Williams’s immortal “Nobody” on end. A prison matron sings “When You’re Good to Mama.” The song recalls Sophie Tucker, but the situation has the matron demanding sexual favors. This two-sided postmodern technique, called “double-coding,” became popular in the late-1980s and ’90s. That Fosse was doing it back in ’75 makes him an early forerunner of the deconstruction to come.
The story’s so scant, the comedy group Forbidden Broadway spoofed it in Hey Big Spender: “Your dances get right to the point/ And although they’ve got that razzle-dazzle look/ Hey, Bob Fosse/ Spend a little time on the book.”
In effect, the “story” plays third or fourth fiddle to the spectacle. But that’s the point. Chicago is ragingly about the reign of surfaces, the smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles that seduce people away from the truth. Velma and Roxie are criminals. But, Fosse shows, with enough razzle and dazzle he can make them as famous as Bonnie and Clyde.
Of the gullible public, vile lawyer Billy Flynn boasts, “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?/ What if your hinges are all rusting?/ What if, in fact, you’re just disgusting?/ Razzle dazzle ’em, and they’ll never catch wise.”
Which San Diego Musical Theatre does to a T. Guided by director Ron Kellum and choreographer Randy Slovacek, both experienced Fosse-ites, the show moves like a runaway train. You never have time to say, “Wait a sec.” Or to consider how expertly you’re being manipulated.
The large cast has the Fosse signatures: black bowler hats; see-through, mesh apparel; and just enough exposed flesh to titillate. They dance as if attacked by bees; at times pumping like pistons, at others as elastic as a Slinky toy. And everyone has that Attitude. They face front and glare like a cocky magician convinced his hand is quicker than your eye. Fosse was a student of — and a genius at — how theatrical cues can manipulate a response; he’ll build a number, freeze at the right moment, and the audience roars, oblivious that they’re approving violence, greed, or murder.
Part of that manipulation comes from the appealing fury of John Kander’s music and Fred Ebb’s lyrics, which, as a character says, “all go to hell in a fast car.” Musical director Don LeMaster gets a big big-band sound from 13 musicians. A sultry, muted trumpet flavors the jazz, and an upright recording bass (those rotary valves make it more than just a tuba) kicks in the ragtime inflections underpinning the score.
Robert J. Townsend’s Billy Flynn is a walking “double-code.” His slick hair and gleaming teeth make him look like an Arrow shirt ad; his mellifluous voice croons with the best of them. But all he talks is rampant sleaze that, apparently, no one hears.
The supporting cast is large and talented. And the two leads are special. Emma Radwick and Kyra Da Costa play Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. When one isn’t stopping the show (Radwick’s “Roxie”) the other is (Da Costa’s “I Can’t Do It Alone,” which she sings — yet another Fosse irony — alone). At the end, an announcer presents them as the “killer dillers” and “those two scintillating sinners.” But why are these should-have-been-convicted felons so appealing? ■
Chicago, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, lyrics by Ebb
San Diego Musical Theatre, Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, North Park
Directed by Ron Kellum; cast: Kyra Da Costa, Emma Radwick, Chuck Saculla, Jason James, Ria Carey, Robert J. Townsend, A. Saunders, Jennifer Simpson, Katie Walley, Joshua Ross, Marisha Castle, Christopher Cortez, Alexis Henderson, Aurore Joly; technical director, Rogelio Rosales; lighting, Matthew Novotny; costumes, Janet Pitcher; musical director, Don Le Master; choreographer, Randy Slovacek
Playing through March 3; Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-560-5740