'Chicago' is great for first-timers and the nostalgic -- just don't expect a fresh take

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Dylis Croman as Roxie Hart. Jeremy Daniel

Chicago doesn't seem like a musical that should have to justify itself.

It's firmly established as one of the post Golden Age greats, now proudly proclaiming itself as Broadway's longest-running American musical -- a formulation that subtly sidesteps the imported Phantom of the Opera. Its openly cynical packaging of shameless razzle-dazzle seems timeless, and its nods to the 1920s feel increasingly conceptual as the span between its 1975 debut and the present approaches the length of the gap between its setting and its premiere.

Still, time marches on, and the 20th anniversary tour of the smash 1996 revival -- now making a stop at the Orpheum Theatre -- suggests this material may be ready for a fresh approach. What once felt like a new discovery has begun to feel like a same-y pageant of wounded egos. The show's lampooning of American justice and celebrity culture also lands differently now that we have a reality-TV president who's glibly announced he can pardon himself of any wrongdoing. Who needs Billy Flynn?

Everyone who's packing the Orpheum for this week's shows, that's who. The run's opening night found its familiar songs greeted with the kind of appreciative sighs that you hear on a veteran rocker's greatest-hits tour -- as though the set list wasn't static. "Oh," audience members seemed to be saying to each other, "I was hoping they'd do 'Mr. Cellophane'!"

They're gonna do it, all right, and they're gonna do it just the way you remember. This production's veteran stars bring the kind of high-polish, low-stakes showmanship you expect to find in Vegas. Emotional verisimilitude, never one of Chicago's hallmarks, is largely subsumed to comic caricatures that hit all their boom-boompa-boom notes.

No wonder fans want to hear those notes hit again and again. If you only know the show from its Oscar-winning 2002 film adaptation, you've got to see it onstage to appreciate just how masterfully composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (who wrote the book with Bob Fosse) lay out their sterling melodies, then play with our expectations of where they're going to lead. The musicians sit in onstage risers, with the conductor playing the ultimate arbiter of who's going to get sympathy in the showdown between two guilty women.

Terra C. MacLeod plays Velma, a vaudeville entertainer who flew into a doubly murderous rage when she discovered her husband and sister in bed together. She enlists Billy (Jeff McCarthy), an attorney who's a master at manipulating public opinion — but who's distracted by a younger, more sympathetic killer named Roxie (Dylis Croman). Knowing their fates may be subject to whether they stay in the newspapers, Velma and Roxie joust for attention.

Many of the show's classic songs ("All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," "When You're Good to Mama," "Razzle Dazzle") are so familiar that some of Tuesday night's audience members couldn't resist singing along. This touring stop will be a welcome opportunity for those seeing the show onstage for the first time, or for those returning a tenth time. If you're somewhere in between, you can probably sit this one out.

IF YOU GO:

Chicago
Orpheum Theatre
Through June 10


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