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IF YOU are tired of straining your brain in search of the subtleties behind some of the recent message plays rolling off of Broadway, then Chicago, with its roaringly corrupt if not accurate version of the '20s, is an honest escape.
"Things are not always as they appear to be", is the theme that flirts with the audience throughout this fast-paced and cynical musical vaudeville. The viewer is immediately conned into believing the show lacks a consistent plot and has few lessons to be learned. Since things are not always as they appear to be, it is not until the end that we realize the play had a message which we were part of all along and like the women portrayed in Chicago, the come-on is such a tease we are hardly satisfied by the finale.
The best way to appreciate Chicago, which after two successful years on Broadway has finally arrived in Boston, is to get in a corruptible frame of mind, and then, sit back and admire the procession of expertly choreographed song and dance routines.
Raucous vaudeville is Chicago's prime mover. The musical score by Fred Ebb and John Kander so dominates the show that even the musicians tend to dominate the actors, performing on top of a platform which towers over the stage. From there the musicians almost become part of the plot. The bandleader and an MC even stop the proceedings at times to announce a song or plug a performer.
Cruel but rich in comic relief, Chicago follows the murder trial of Roxie Hart, a "foxy lady" who has one of her many affairs with a furniture salesman, shoots him in a rage and then talks her compliant husband into confessing to the murder. He blows her cover, however, and Roxie finds herself in the friendly confines of the Cook County Jail where the lady inmates, fresh from the opening and most impressive number entitled "All That Jazz", dance cell-door-in-hand to the beat of "Cell Block Tango."
Led by the crafty murderess Velma Keily, "The Girls" admit to the rather hideous murders of various husbands, lovers and cheaters with the cruel excuse "They had it coming, they had it coming." Roxie fears all is lost until she is taken under the wing of the ward matron Mama, who for a small fee, is pleased to point her in the direction of a cunning and flashy lawyer named Billy Flynn.
His own entrance a grand spectacular of longlegged women dancing about him with fluttering pink plummage, Flynn virtually has the stage to himself whenever he speaks or touches his cigarette holder to his million-dollar mouth. Cocky and always in control, he boasts that "If Jesus Christ had been in Chicago and had had 5000 bucks, things would have turned out a lot different."
Roxie tricks her husband into providing the lawyer's fee--cash in advance--and Billy shows her how to make herself into a local Patty Hearst. The front page boys hang on every word as the dramatic Flynn moves Roxie like a puppet. He dramatizes the plight of the poor, innocent girl victimized by cruel men, and thrown pregnant into damp country slammer; of course she shot in self-defense as the man threatened to strangle her for refusing to cheat on her beloved husband.
The play is extremely cynical in its depiction of a world where greedy and exploitive men are overtly dominant, but scheming and sleazy women capitalize on the weaknesses inherent in the male ego, somehow, they are always the ones left with all the aces up their silken sleeves.
Having stolen all the media's attention away from Velma who also used Flynn's tactics, Roxie marches brazenly to court, assured that her celebrity status will not only insure acquittal, but that she will be able to plaster her own name across the country in big, bright neon vaudeville marquee in New York.
Her ego inflates so much, in fact, that she at one point ridicules Flynn as a "greasy mick lawyer" and claims she can do better as her own defense. She dismisses the warnings of the worldly Flynn who says, "You're a phony celebrity Roxie, a flash in the pan--in two weeks nobody'll know who you are kid.... That's Chicago." But after one of Velma's girls is convicted and receives her just desserts at the end of a rope, Roxie agrees to dress up like Susy Homebody and bring a bit of vaudeville to the jury.
The climax of the production comes when the chamelion-like Flynn shows the jury that "things are not always as they appear to be." He manipulates an entire jury which is impressively acted by a single man who jumps from chair to chair protraying every absurd stereotype, reminding the audience that they are equally foolish.
You will have to see the play to hear the ending, but suffice it to say that by the finale you'll see vaudeville as having taken on a symbolism of its own. The vaudeville format becomes a free and easy amoral metaphor depicting life as nothing but a flesh-pot carnival of the bizarre, where nearly everyone is a con man looking out for number one, and even a bit of free sympathy is hard to come by. The technique reminds one of "Cabaret", but the fast razzle-dazzle is custom-made Chicago.
Chicago will not prove to be one of the most memorable plays you have ever seen, but in a dirty sort of way it provides a night of good clean fun. Although the Broadway cast is rumored to be much better, if you are in a wild and corruptible mood, Chicago packs a lot of rat-a-tat-tat.
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