STAGE REVIEW : A Razzle- Dazzle 'Chicago'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

A funny thing about "Chicago," the musical. It's so much better than it was.

This is not a question of revisionist staging. Au contraire. When it opened on Broadway in 1975, this John Kander/Fred Ebb musical, with original choreography and direction by the late Bob Fosse, was immensely popular and intentionally kitschy. And the Long Beach Civic Light Opera revival, which opened at the Terrace Theatre Thursday, is delivered to us virtually intact. Rob Marshall re-creates Fosse's staging and Fosse disciple Ann Reinking clones Fosse's choreography. It's not the show that's changed. It's us.

Adapted from Maurine Dallas Watkins' 1926 play of the same name, the music in "Chicago" was always an assemblage of some of Kander and Ebb's most stylish and hummable songs ("All That Jazz," "Mr. Cellophane," "Me and My Baby," "Razzle Dazzle"). But the campy, defiant lyrics written to reflect the easy gunplay and speak-easy morality of 1920s Chicago have assumed a new and terrible irony in the 1990s.

In the wake of last week's L.A. riots and their causes, it's clear the nation's moral collapse has only grown ominous since '75. Whatever happened to fair dealing? And pure ethics? are more than lyrics in that terrific song "Class." So through no effort of its own, a musical that was once a playful satire is now a pointed one. What a timely revival.

And what a smart one. For the first time in a long while Long Beach CLO is hitting its stride. Its headliners deserve the title and almost all of its dancers know how to hit that floor dancing.

Tony Walton's original Broadway set has been reconstituted: a central tower with balcony on top to accommodate the lively orchestra under John McDaniel's baton.

Garland Riddle has designed a saucy/sassy array of costumes (some duplications of Patricia Zipprodt's originals and some pure Riddle creations). And except for serious overmiking of M. O'Haughey's overmilked turn as sob sister Mary Sunshine, sound designer Jonathan Deans has finally managed to balance those treacherous Terrace Theatre acoustics.

Few musicals offer equal-value roles for two stars of the same gender, but "Chicago" is one. Juliet Prowse and Bebe Neuwirth are the separate but equal knockouts as gun-molls Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively. They land in jail for different murders but get out for the same reasons: chicanery, lies and the shrewd maneuvering of a pricey attorney, Billy Flynn (a brisk and pragmatic Gary Sandy). With a nod to Kander/Ebb/Fosse's "Cabaret," Flynn knows money makes the world go 'round. All he wants is his own, preferably exorbitant share.

It's an undistinguished story snatched from tabloid headlines in which the guilty go free and everyone's on the take. Sound familiar? Fosse, Kander and Ebb made hay from all that moonshine, and "Chicago" remains a concept musical with clever production ideas and numbers, splendid dances, lots of style and class to spare.

Almost. Kaye Ballard--are you ready for this?--is too tame as the prison matron. Her voice is as big and brassy as ever, but she doesn't go far enough with the brashness. She and O'Haughey (a holdover from the Broadway cast) should trade noise and vulgarity levels. And another thing: Jokes, even up-front jokes, at the expense of mincing haberdashers don't wash anymore. This very minor blip can be trimmed from the show without anyone noticing. It should be.

But back to the good stuff, especially Neuwirth and Prowse. If anything, Prowse brings more nerviness and hard edge to her Roxie Hart than did vulnerable Gwen Verdon, who created the role. And Barney Martin, another holdover from Broadway, is perfect as her bland, wimpy husband Amos. His "Mr. Cellophane" shuffle is as poignant today as it was 17 years ago, with the audience Thursday unable to refrain from interrupting his action to give him a round of applause.

Neuwirth, remembered for her tough German chanteuse in the Taper's presentation of "Cabaret Verboten," looks as if she eats nails for breakfast but drinks them down with Dom Perignon.

She and Prowse can sing and dance up a storm, separately and together, with Prowse superb in "Roxie" and "Me and My Baby," Neuwirth splendid in "Class" (with Ballard) and "I Can't Do It Alone," and the two of them dazzling in everything they try together, including "My Own Best Friend," "Nowadays" and "Keep It Hot" (they do).

The success of this production--a careful reproduction of the original--shows the occasional wisdom of not tampering with success. There are, unfortunately, no current plans to move this show. But someone out there with taste, money and shrewdness should grab it.

Grand, isn't it?/Great, isn't it?/Swell, isn't it?/Fun , isn't it?

Every step of the way.

"Chicago, a Musical Vaudeville," Terrace Theatre, Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends May 17. $14-$34; (310) 432-7926, (714) 826-9371, (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000). Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Bebe Neuwirth: Velma Kelly

Juliet Prowse: Roxie Hart

Barney Martin: Amos Hart

Kaye Ballard: Matron

Gary Sandy: Billy Flynn

M. O'Haughey: Mary Sunshine

David Warren-Gibson: Fred Casely

William Ledesma: Sergeant Fogarty

Lisa Akey: Liz

Kim Morghan: Greene Annie

Daryl Richardson: June

Jodi Lang: Hunyak

Caitlin Carter: Mona

Jennifer Nairn Smith: Go-To-Hell Kitty

Jill Matson: Showgirl

Robert Loftin: Aaron

Jim Borstelmann: Martin Harrison

Glenn Sneed: Jury

Eric Davenport: Court Clerk

A Long Beach Civic Light Opera presentation. Producer Barry Brown. Executive director Pegge Logefeil. Director Rob Marshall. Music John Kander. Lyrics Fred Ebb. Book Kander and Ebb. Sets Tony Walton. Scenic consultant Douglas D. Smith. Lights Kim Killingsworth. Costumes Garland Riddle. Hair/makeup Elena M. Breckenridge. Sound Jonathan Deans. Musical director John McDaniel. Choreographer Ann Reinking. Production manager Donald Hill. Production stage manager John M. Galo.

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