Still packing heat

'Chicago's' lethal charms don't skip a beat almost 30 years later. If only they'd let Patti LaBelle keep on singing.

By Rob Kendt , Special to The Times

Feb 4 2005

Catching the wave between time-polished and timeworn, the "Chicago" tour that just rolled into the Pantages Theatre (its third SoCal stop in less than two years) is still high-kicking its buckle shoes with the requisite snap and tickle.

It will be 30 years in June since director-choreographer Bob Fosse and partners in crime John Kander and Fred Ebb birthed this precocious Broadway baby, and nearly nine since Walter Bobbie's triumphant New York revival.

But who's talking anniversaries? That would be too sentimental for this rapier-sleek showbiz contraption, which effectively marries a withering cynicism about murder, sex, celebrity and justice with a grinning carney's why-take-anything-seriously leer.

"This trial, the whole world — it's all show business," lawyer Billy Flynn (Gregory Harrison) declares late in the show. This isn't news from the wizened chaps who earlier informed us that "life is a cabaret."

Indeed, Bobbie's bare-bones staging still looks a bit like a cabaret floorshow, down to the fishnets and leather. The killer dames — led by Brenda Braxton's steel-tipped Velma Kelly — are more about grit than glamour.

If Braxton provides the hard-edged glint, Bianca Marroquín as Roxie Hart — the chorine whose ruthless aspirations for stardom would seem pathetic in any other context — gives us flutier tones. A redheaded pixie who rose from the show's Mexican company and occupies the top perch here with aplomb, she often looks a bit too confident for this needy climber, and her vocal timbre can be tight and chirpy.

As lawyer-impresario Flynn, the handsome, saturnine Harrison is the show's amoral conscience. This former TV familiar (who was also once an L.A. theater staple) has seldom employed his million-dollar smile with more lethal charm. Replacing vocally ailing Wayne Brady, the square-jawed Harrison even looks the part of in-demand fixer who sings his calling card: "Give 'em an act that's unassailable/They'll wait a year 'til you're available."

Patti LaBelle, Lady Marmalade herself, is matron Mama Morton, the ladies' prison warden with a heart of graft. Though she has only one solo number, "When You're Good to Mama" — which LaBelle performs concert-style, with her signature R&B-on-laughing-gas sound — Mama is a crucial presence onstage. But when LaBelle stops singing her fire goes out, leaving a big hole in the show where a diva should be.

For all this show's innate hard sell, its moments of expert underplaying are legion.

Harrison's instinctual restraint provides a kind of backbeat, and the choreography by Gary Chryst is as striking for precise, isolated gestures as for strutting, grinding swagger. As Roxie's neglected numskull hubby Amos, P.J. Benjamin makes "Mr. Cellophane" a model character sketch, sad and simple, which earns the number a groundswell of applause.

But even with the restraint, this "Chicago" doesn't hold back the sizzle. R. Bean's twittering Mary Sunshine is a study in perfectly pitched excess, and the show's climactic trial scene is a giddy commedia slam-dunk.

Vincent Fanuele leads the 14-piece onstage orchestra with similarly calibrated dynamic range, making Kander and Ebb's score glisten like the ageless Broadway-gypsy songbook it is.

Where else outside the Brecht/Weill canon would the sounds of accordion, banjo and fiddle signify jaunty, Jazz Age worldliness rather than corny Americana?

Not that the stagy, sassy, playhouse-creature world of "Chicago" isn't Americana, too. As Velma says at the close of her "sister act" with Roxie, "We are living examples of what a wonderful country this is." She's right. Glitter with a serrated edge is a thing of wonder.



Where: Broadway/LA at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 20

Price: $25 to $127.50

Contact: (213) 365-3500,

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes