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'CHICAGO' -- SO CRIMINAL, SO CYNICAL

In an era when criminals are treated like celebrities and lawyers serve as their agents, the musical "Chicago" seems especially timely.
The satirical play, which opens Tuesday at Shea's Performing Arts Center, tells the story of Roxie Hart, a shady lady who guns down her lover. All the evidence is against her. But thanks to a media-savvy lawyer, Roxie quickly goes from criminal to cause celebre.

It's not based on O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, the Menendez brothers or even Lorena Bobbitt. It's based on a Chicago woman named Belva Gaertner who was arrested for the murder of her boyfriend in March 1924.

At the Chicago Tribune, the case was given to Maureen Dallas Watkins, an ambitious young reporter working the crime beat. Ms. Watkins found Gaertner a colorful and amusing personality, so she snazzed up her story in the hopes of seeing it run as a feature. It did, and the public fell in love with Gaertner. And, despite the fact that all the evidence was against her, she was acquitted.

Ms. Watkins later quit the newspaper business and enrolled in the Yale School of Drama. In 1926, her comedy, "Chicago," opened on Broadway. The New York Times called it "a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity."

Ms. Watkins kept her journalism background to herself as the play enjoyed a 172-performance run.

Some 50 years later, "Chicago" was reborn as a musical. Recalls Fred Ebb, who co-wrote the play's new book, "I know that when we started writing it in 1975, 'Squeaky' Fromme, who had just taken a pot-shot at our president, was on the cover of Time magazine."

The cultural climate seemed right for "Chicago."

The musical was the pet project of the legendary Bob Fosse, who directed and choreographed it in his singular, seedy style. John Kander and Ebb wrote the music and lyrics, respectively; they're responsible for "Zorba," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "Cabaret," among other hits. The cast included Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. The starring role of Roxie went to Gwen Verdon, who was then Fosse's wife. When Verdon fell ill, Liza Minnelli did a nine-week stint in the role, which sold out every night.

"Chicago" opened on June 3, 1975 and closed after a respectable 923 performances. Still, it was never considered a true success. Critics felt that Fosse's obsession with Weimar-era culture -- black stockings, bowler hats and cigarettes -- had worked well in "Cabaret" but was wearing thin.

"This is jazzy old Chicago, not jazzy old Berlin," noted the New York Daily News.

Critics also complained of the show's overly cynical attitude. The New York Times complained that Fosse's "undue insistence on the tawdriness of it all crowds wit to the wall."

"Things are what they are," Ebb replies in a recent phone interview from his home in Southern California. "We did, in fact, write a cynical musical. I believe it's also a fun and lighthearted musical and a joyous occasion." He adds, "I find that a grossly unfair criticism. It's like saying 'South Pacific' is too romantic."

Fosse, of course, is no longer here to reply to his critics. While rehearsing "Chicago," Fosse suffered a number of heart attacks, the result of many years of cigarettes, vodka and tranquilizers. He suffered his final, fatal heart attack in 1987, in Washington D.C., during backstage rehearsals of "Sweet Charity."

Fosse probably never imagined that "Chicago" would be revived more than 20 years later to an enthusiastic public and unanimous critical acclaim.

In May of last year, the "Encores!" series in New York City brought the play back for a four-night run. The director of the series, Walter Bobbie, seemed to sense that Fosse's spirit was important to the play. He recruited Joel Gray, who starred as the lecherous emcee in the film version of "Cabaret," to
play Roxie's cuckolded husband. For the role of Roxie, Bobbie chose Ann Reinking.

Reinking first played Roxie in the spring of 1977, when "Chicago" was still on its original run. Verdon, then 51, stepped down and Reinking, then 26, replaced her. The next year, Reinking became Fosse's lover. Together, she and Fosse choreographed "Pippin," "Sweet Charity," "Dancin' " and "All That Jazz." The pair split before Fosse's death.

Reinking choreographed the "Encores!" production of "Chicago," as its playbill states, "in the style of Bob Fosse."

"I did what I felt was right," Reinking says over the phone from London, where she is putting together yet another production of the play. "I did it in his memory and his style and, hopefully, with the sensibilities that he would employ in all his shows."

That sensibility includes the very trademarks that the critics once scorned: straight-backed chairs, dramatic angles, a repertoire of burlesqued ballet. Reinking particularly loves the "Fosse walk," which she describes as "the use of the turned-in port de bra, the hips go side-to-side, the arms go back, very elegant-looking and graceful."

Though Broadway has been dominated in recent years by multimillion-dollar spectacles such as "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Titanic," the minimalist set of "Chicago" seems to come as a welcome change. For whatever reason, Kander's le jazz hot score seems more appropriate now than it did in 1975. Critics have been delighted instead of put off by the cynicism.

New York Newsday called it "prescient." Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, wrote that the new production "makes an exhilarating case both for 'Chicago' as a musical for the ages and for the essential legacy of Fosse."

Everyone involved seems somewhat taken aback by the show's success.

"The times caught up with the show," Ebb guesses. "I think America's criminals are America's royalty now."

He adds: "Ask most people who's the secretary of state and they can't tell you. Ask most people who Al Capone is, and they can. I think that'll very likely be true 20 years from now. It's true today; it was true when we started to write the musical. It was apparently true when Maureen Watkins wrote 'Chicago.' "

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