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For much of its 20+ year run, the Broadway revival of the brilliant John Kander-Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theatre has attracted new audiences by bringing in a rotating series of superstars from Usher to Brandy, Melanie Griffith and Sofia Vergara (to name just a few). But when this ultra-smart, super-melodic tuner is placed in the hands of a seasoned cast of Broadway veterans (many of whom have already done long runs in the show), as is true of the current run, you can ask for few better nights in the theater.
For those of you who don’t know the show’s history, it debuted on Broadway in 1975 with the incomparable Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in the leads, but only managed a two-year run. The current simple-yet-perfect production is based on Walter Bobbie’s clever staging for City Center Encores! back in 1996, with the great Ann Reinking re-creating and re-working the peerless choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse. The fabulous orchestra sits on stage (led by the great Leslie Stifelman), but there’s plenty of room up front for an amazing troupe of loose-limbed dancers to execute the mind-blowing, ultra-precise choreography.
As for the story, adapted from Maurice Dallas Watkins’ 1927 play, it takes place during the jazz age era of the Windy City, where murders and gangsters not only made headlines, but were (briefly) as famous as movie stars. That’s certainly true of cold-blooded, cold-hearted Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright, whose combination of biting wit and ultra-high kicks is ideal for the role), the star of the Cook County jail and the temporary favorite of its tough-yet-slightly-tender warden, Matron “Mama” Morton (the fabulously strong-voiced and very funny Cady Huffman, knocking it out of the park in her first run in the show).
However, Velma’s fame quickly becomes eclipsed by the not-so-dumb chorine Roxie Hart (the beyond-phenomenal Charlotte D’Amboise), an adulterous gal who killed her lover in a fit of pique. Determined to avoid hanging, despite being guiltier than sin, Roxie and her ultra-slick lawyer Billy Flynn (the superbly suave Tom Hewitt) manage to manipulate everyone in sight from her sweet, dim-witted husband Amos (a superb Evan Harrington) to gullible reporter Mary Sunshine (the remarkable R. Lowe).
Even in lesser hands than these, Kander & Ebb’s stunning score always scores, from the dazzling opener “All That Jazz” to Billy’s satiric “All I Care About Is Love” and cynical “Razzle Dazzle,” Amos’ self-effacing “Mister Cellophane,” the double-entendre-filled “When You’re Good to Mama,” and especially, the bitingly hilarious “Cell Black Tango,” sung by Velma and the five other merry murderesses of the jail.
But the heart and “soul” of “Chicago” is Roxie, and D’Amboise is giving the finest performance in this complex, demanding role I’ve seen since Reinking. Her Roxie is the perfect combination of pride, stupidity and shallowness, while still retaining the heart and vulnerability we need to “root” for Roxie’s acquittal. And her dancing, especially during the extended “Roxie” sequence, is obviously quite difficult to do, but seemingly effortless.
As the show’s final song asks, “Isn’t it good? Isn’t it great?” If you see “Chicago” with this cast, you will absolutely answer yes.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Charlotte d’Amboise as Roxie Hart, Amra-Faye Wright as Velma Kelly, Tom Hewitt as Billy Flynn, Evan Harrington as Amos Hart, Cady Huffman as Matron “Mama” Morton and R. Lowe as Mary Sunshine.
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