by Ryan Leeds
Does salvation inhibit creativity? It may well be a question that plagued the late stage legends Gwen Verdon and her husband Bob Fosse in the 1960s. After Verdon read reporter and playwright Maurine Dallas Watkin’s play, Chicago, she talked to Fosse about adapting it into a stage musical. The pair approached Watkins numerous times but she refused to grant the rights after having become a Born Again Christian. Watkins felt that her play, which was based on an actual 1924 murder trial, glamorized crime.
After Watkins’ death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Verdon and Fosse and a musicalized version of Chicago was born. Chicago The Musical opened on Broadway in 1975 with Fosse providing the iconic direction and choreography and Verdon stepping into the lead role of Roxie Hart.
The original production ran for two years and was successful, but it was overshadowed by A Chorus Line, which opened on Broadway that same year. Years later, it would re-open at the same Broadway theatre (Richard Rodgers) on November 14, 1996, and would go on to be a smash hit, winning six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It has played over 8,000 performances and continues to thrill audiences at the Broadhurst Theatre.
On Wednesday August 31st, the City Parks Foundation and SummerStage continued their season with an exciting concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the revival to an enthusiastic audience in Central Park.
NYPD Commissioner William Bratten was on a hand to introduce a show “that takes place in a wonderful city that is being performed in another wonderful city.” Members of the current Broadway cast as well as a few other guest surprises followed to perform an abbreviated version of the stage show.
Velma Kelly (Lana Gordon) opens the show with “All That Jazz”, a jazzy ode to the prohibition era. Kelly is a resident at the Cook County prison after she murdered her husband and sister, who were found in bed with one another. She’s become somewhat of a celebrity thanks in part to her crime, and her stature as a Vaudeville performer.
Meanwhile, Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquín) has just murdered her lover, Fred Casely (Brian O’Brien) and tries to pin the blame on her dim-witted husband Amos (Raymond Bokhour). Velma and Roxie’s cellmates perform the “Cell Block Tango” a show-stopping number proving that, although they admit to their crimes, “they had it comin.’”
Mama Morton (in this performance shared by the sassy Roz Ryan and Carol Woods), the jail’s “keeper of keys,” sings, “When You’re Good to Mama”, a cynical song about paying for one’s innocence. Billy Flynn (Jason Danieley) enters the picture in an old school-style number, “All I Care About,” adorned with feathers and showgirls. Flynn is a slick, smooth talkin’ lawyer who is confident that he can get Hart off the hook. James Naughton, who won a Tony for the role, opened the number and yielded to Danieley, who played Flynn for the rest of the performance.
Rounding out the principal players is Little Mary Sunshine, a sympathetic reporter who covers the case and sings a song about finding goodness in the darkest of hearts (“A Little Bit of Good”). Three separate Mary Sunshines (M. Deming, R. Lowe and C. Newcomer) graced the stage and turned the usual solo number into a trio. In a true storybook ending, Hart and Kelly are found not guilty and walk free. Hart is upset that the frenzy surrounding her case didn’t lead her to newfound fame.
The Wednesday night concert was peppered with appearances by actual news personalities (Frank DiLella of NY1, Tamsen Fadal of WFIX, David Navarro of WABC, Jacque Reid of WNBC’s New York Live) and added a dose of fun to an already thoroughly entertaining night of theatre directed by Walter Bobbie.
Chicago has often been accused of being too cynical and sarcastic—and perhaps it is. But the main reason is succeeds is because of that cynicism and sarcasm. It resonated in 1996 because America had just witnessed two high profile court cases with O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers. The revival also came before the abundance of reality television shows and selfie-obsessed youths.
Watching the show now, it might be more accurate to have coined it “prescient.” With its smart combination of Fosse-inspired choreography, topical relevance, an excellent score and book by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and smoking hot performances, I wouldn’t rule out a 50th anniversary concert.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook