On Stage: Cell Block Tango

by Chuck Conconi

The National Theatre’s ‘Chicago’ is a hit with inventive dancing and memorable numbers. 

Terra C MacLeod as Velma Kelly and cast. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Terra C MacLeod as Velma Kelly and cast in ‘Chicago.’ (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago,” now on a road tour stop at the National Theatre, is a wonderfully cynical, sarcastic look at the Roaring ’20s Jazz Age, where prohibition was ignored, hot music dominated and law breakers were celebrated.

Chicago” has been successfully making the rounds since Bob Fosse wrote the book and directed and choreographed it. “Chicago” opened on Broadway in 1974. It has gone on to a major revival in 1996 and an Oscar-winning film in 2002 and is one of the longest running shows on Broadway history.

Adapted from a play written in 1924 by a Chicago crime reporter, it celebrates the ’20s press fascination with homicides committed by women. Their crimes of killing husbands or lovers, made banner headlines and Chicago all-male juries were famous for never convicting a woman for murder.

Roxie Hart, portrayal by Bianca Marroquin, who won the 2004 Helen Hayes award when she was here on tour in “Chicago,” shoots her lover and almost convinces her husband, Amos (Jacob Keith Watson) to take the blame. Amos is a simple man who loves Roxie but is out of her league.

When he realizes she was having an affair, he backs away and Roxie goes off to the famous Cook County Jail, that was also the setting of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play, “The Front Page,” also satirizing the same period.

Watson as the hapless husband has one of the best numbers of the show when he sings the poignant solo, “Mister Cellophane,” lamenting that no one notices him, that they look right through him.

At the Cook County Jail, Roxie comes under the care of Matron Momma Morton (Roz Ryan) who explains her rules when she sings, “When You’re Good to Momma” momma is good to you. Roxie, being new is attracting the press to the consternation of Velma (Terra C. MacLeod), a cabaret singer also in for shooting her lover. Momma had promised her that with her publicity she would help her become a Vaudeville star, but now the fickle press loves Roxie, who is the fresher story.

Dominated by Fosse’s stylized, jerky choreography, the dancing is still inventive.

And Chicago has such memorable numbers as “All That Jazz,’ performed by Velma and company; the cynical “Cell Block Tango,” where Velma and the girls boast about their crimes; and the energetic “Razzle Dazzle” sung by Billy Flynn, Roxie and Velma’s unethical lawyer who always wins his cases for a price, even though he contends, “All I Care About” is love,” a charmingly cynical song.

Veteran actor John O’Hurley is a wonderfully unctuous, dapper Billy, a lawyer who knows exactly how to sway a jury and take advantage of the herd of newspaper reporters and sob sister columnists’ anxious hunting for the next juicy homicide.

This classic musical deserves the array of awards it has received; the songs are wonderful and the young dancers have the energy and presence to understand Fosse’s style. What was disconcerting was the excessive mugging to the audience for cheap laughs. There were times that it seemed as though some of the actors had performed in “Chicago” too many times and were just going through the motions. But, “Chicago” is still one of the great Broadway musicals created by the incomparable Kander and Ebb with the amazingly talented Fosse.

Chicago continues through February 15 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW. Tickets are $48-$108 and available at 202-628-6161 and online here

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