The National Theatre’s Chicago – The Musical has the glitz and the glamour. It has the sultry story of passion, murder and fame in 1920s Chicago. But it also has Vicki Lewis (News Radio) and Robert Urich (Spencer for Hire).
Lewis co-stars as the sultry Velma Kelly. Imprisoned for the murder of her husband, Velma thrives on the fame she acquired since her arrest. She has the big-name lawyer Billy Flynn (Urich) and big plans to star in vaudeville shows after her assured acquittal. And then Roxie Hart (Nana Visitor, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) arrives.
Hart becomes Chicago’s famed femme fatale, and Velma becomes just another woman in a tight black dress sitting in prison. With each new crime of passion, there’s a criminal du jour. But Roxie and Velma are not willing to easily fade into the background. They were famous for their crimes, and now they just want to be famous.
Name recognition goes a long way in society. Why else would The National Theatre advertise the performances of Lewis and Urich? It’s certainly not because of their high-caliber portrayals.
Urich sounds like a lounge singer on a cruise ship when he croons. Maybe it’s from his days on The Love Boat. The man should bellow, not merely sing. In Razzle Dazzle, a high-energy number led by Flynn, the other cast members carry the song. Their energy and their el?n, not Urich’s, make the piece soar.
Lewis has an entirely different problem. She’s annoying. In News Radio, she’s the fiery secretary, Beth, who you want to smack. In Seinfeld, she is the woman who bashes Jerry as part of her stand-up routine, and you want Jerry to smack her. If you can get past her whiny voice, it’s difficult to see her as anything but irksome.
Lewis, however, also seems weak next to the burly performance of Visitor as Roxy. She’s coy and convincing. With a strong voice and fabulous facial expressions, Visitor gives an unfaltering performance that is rivaled only by Carol Woods as the Matron Mama Morton. From the moment Woods saunters on stage, you can feel her presence. And then she lets a few notes fly, and you’re mesmerized.
Woods’ voice goes effortlessly from one note to the next. She isn’t an alto or a soprano or a tenor. She’s everything. Her voice never falters or wavers. At the end of When You’re Good to Mama, you feel empowered by the electricity of Woods’ voice.
Ray Bokhour as Roxie’s husband, Amos, and M.E. Spencer as the sympathetic reporter deserve commendation for their performances. Although the actors do not appear on stage as often as other characters, they elevate the level of success of the show with their performances. They are perfectly cast and provide much of the humor in the show.
And the show is funny. In Cell Block Tango, five women describe the murders of their husbands, but explain why it isn’t their faults. The piece is exquisitely done. Bokhour, a short rotund bald man, performs Cellophane Man, detailing how no one pays attention to him.
The National Theatre’s Chicago retains the elements of the original choreographed by the acclaimed Bob Fosse. Hot Honey Rag, in which Velma and Roxy twirl all over the stage, is Fosse’s original choreography. Lewis, however, lacks the grace and finesse of the other performers. Her movements seem jerky and more deliberate than the others. If her brilliant red hair didn’t make her stand out, her stiffness during the dance numbers will.
Chicago is advertised as a show featuring Lewis and Urich. If the show didn’t feature them, it would be better off. Chicago has most of the elements of the razzle-dazzle show it is. Unfortunately, Lewis and Urich bog down Chicago and prevent it from fully crossing the line of mediocrity.
Chicago continues at the National Theatre through Jan. 2. Tickets range from $35 to $67.50