Lose Your Blues at Chicago

Fosse's 26-year-old musical is better than ever.

Chicago: The Musical The Paul W. Cassidy Theatre, 6200 Pearl Road, Parma Heights Through May 19


Saucy Fosse: Trinidad Rosado-Henry (left) and - Sandra Emerick.
Saucy Fosse: Trinidad Rosado-Henry (left) and Sandra Emerick.
London, 1594. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is proclaimed by The London Picayune as "theatrical ambrosia fit for the gods," while Richard III is berated as the equivalent of "horse dung by an upstart crow." Inevitably, Father Time proves to be the true theatrical sage.

Skip forward a few hundred theatrical seasons to Broadway, 1975. A Chorus Line, a vibrantly danced yet maudlin get-together of dancers begging for love with the shamelessness of sad-eyed puppies, has garnered adulation worthy of Elvis, along with the Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, Bob Fosse's Chicago is a black-hearted, syncopated ode to man-slaughtering flappers. Though far from a flop, the latter's timing was off. Premiering in an age that savored touchy-feely emotions, it was dismissed as a cold, meretricious bauble. When the road company hit Cleveland in 1978, it was chastised in The Cleveland Press for the sleaziness of its characters and general emptiness of material.

Skip 20 years. Sex scandals pop up like dandelions. Corruption has become such a common taste sensation, it can be found everywhere but in a pack of Life Savers. Time changes everything. A Chorus Line seems as self-consciously pass´ as Barbra Streisand's attempts at folk rock, while Chicago: The Musical, in a scaled-down Victoria's Secret-accented revival, reemerges as a revelation. Here is a musical with each number in a deliberately different vaudeville style, ranging from torch singer to minstrel, a work that proclaims show business as the one true religion. As its publicity-crazed heroine Roxie Hart proclaims: "I love the audience. And the audience loves me for loving them. And I love the audience for loving me. And we just love each other. That's because none of us got enough love in our childhood."

Based on an actual murder trial, this musical is taken from a sardonic, wisecracking 1926 melodrama about a girl who shoots her lover and is subsequently acquitted and launched into show business when her shyster lawyer performs his song and dance for a jury more interested in shapely gams than guilt or innocence. This is a work that has always enraged Bible-thumpers. When filmed in 1942 with Ginger Rogers, the heroine's no-good husband was made the killer to appease the censors. Later, when the repentant playwright, former court reporter Maureen Watkins, found religion, she had the play suppressed until her death.

Director/choreographer Fosse and composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, coming off the film version of Cabaret, in which they turned the rise of Nazi Germany into a leering nightclub act of thrusting hips and garter belts, decided to turn Watkins's play into an American Threepenny Opera. They superbly portrayed this country going to hell in a handbasket and loving it.

At the Cassidy Theatre (formerly Greenbrier) in Parma Heights, the average audience member has been on Medicare a good 20 years. Like Brigadoon, time has stopped here. In the theater's long history, The Sound of Music has been labeled racy, and Dolly Levi has been asked to cover her cleavage. Yet, in this bawdy production, every salacious innuendo is fervently chuckled at. By the show's cynical conclusion, when its two floozies have Charlestoned over the justice system, theatergoers are jubilantly tossing their canes and walkers in the air and wolf-whistling through their dentures.

Since this is a musical that depends on the machinations of its director/choreographer, the blame for this moral decay rests squarely on the shoulders of Gustavo E. Urdaneta. On a budget that would barely cover the salami sandwiches in Cleveland's big-time theaters, he has harnessed the energy and style of the great Fosse and made it his own. He has appropriated the best bits from the 1975 Broadway original and '97 revival while throwing in superb touches from other Fosse opuses, including the swirling ponytail from Sweet Charity's "Rich Man's Frug" and a tango from "Little Me." He has also added his own personal inspirations, such as a cheating boyfriend caught and plugged while fornicating in the middle of a dance chorus.

He even has the audacity to improve upon the master. In the "Cell Block Tango," Fosse had a chorus of merry murderesses exulting in their crimes as they carried their own prison bars. Urdaneta has embellished this by having each tootsie backed by a young stud carrying the bars, pantomiming each victim's demise.

In a stunning visual conception, the show's steaming sirens don vamp hairdos from different eras, ranging from Louise Brooks's bob to Rita Hayworth's fiery mane to Marilyn Monroe's platinum halo. Cutaway, peekaboo gowns and skintight pants set the evening ablaze with sensuality.

The director makes neophytes and veterans alike radiate enough steam to warm every arthritic joint in the joint.

Taking parts originally tooled for the talents of superdivas Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon, Urdaneta transforms Trinidad Rosado-Henry's Velma and Sandra Emerick's Roxie into musical harlots with magical powers. The former can level a house with her Eartha Kitt growl and seductive pout, while the latter can start a fire with a well-turned hip and douse it with a chilling stare. Randall A. Enlow's cunning lawyer brings to mind every game-show host who ever took a bribe, and Roberta Jankowksi's Mary Sunshine, a sob-sister reporter from hell, suggests perennial society dame Margaret Dumont on steroids. As for the rest of the cast: If this is community theater, we may never have to bother with professionals again.

If the world weren't as corrupt as this musical would indicate, Urdaneta would be displaying his talents in a theater with velvet curtains and a mink-lined budget.

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