June 14, Robinson Center Music Hall
The star-studded movie, of course, did a lot to raise the profile of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Chicago,” but it’s always been a stellar American musical. The story of murderous, fame-hungry Roxy Hart and her cohort in crime, Velma Kelly, continues to, as one song goes, “razzle dazzle ’em.” The touring production that’s pulled into Little Rock for a two-day stay thanks to Celebrity Attractions confirms all of the musical’s great qualities: a wicked, black sense of humor, a brassy score and tremendous, Brechtenian showmanship.
It also wouldn’t be fair to go too far without mentioning the choreography, which this production says is done by Ann Reinkin in the style of Bob Fosse. You don’t have to know much about Fosse to see his slinky, sexed-up style present in the chorus of dancers, all who are wearing next to nothing covered by enough fishnet to drape a football field.
The headline on this “Chicago” is the appearance of John O’Hurley, who will forever be known as a J. Peterman on Seinfeld. O’Hurley, playing the opportunistic lawyer Billy Flynn, could have easily been a stiff on stage or hammed it up. Instead, with his silver hair and distinct, booming voice, he’s magnetic. His comic timing is dead on and he effortlessly holds the stage whenever he is on it. The ventriloquist number is a thing of beauty.
O’Hurley is matched and perhaps slightly bested by Ron Orbach and his incredibly incisive take on the poor schlub, Amos Hart. Orbach comes on like a comic doofus — it makes perfect sense that Roxy would step all over this guy. It makes it all the more poignant and heart wrenching when Orbach belts out his sad lament, “Mr. Cellophane.”
Roz Ryan, as Matron “Mama” Morton, hardly moves a muscle on stage (especially when compared to the writhing bodies around her), but she got the audience eating out of her hand from almost her first moment.
O’Hurley, Orbach and Ryan were so distinct and enjoyable they had a unwanted effect of making the two leads, Tracy Shayne as Roxy and Terra C. MacLeod as Velma, come across as bit bland in comparison. Shayne and MacLeod are clearly pros and they don’t lack for vocal chops or dancing ability. But Shayne in particular never seems to fully inhabit her role and her Roxy never communicates a desperateness that clearly is part of the character.
But that’s only a tiny drag for a very adult show that, unlike most musicals, is able to make it to the end with its black heart intact. This “Chicago” also proves to be a playground for some sharp performers.