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Right in step 'Chicago' keeps the work of brilliant choreographer Bob Fosse front and center

Bob Fosse didn't know he had a hit on his hands.

In 1975, after opening a darkly themed Broadway musical about sex, murder and the media called "Chicago," the famed choreographer's mammoth insecurities set in. Was it good enough? Was it smart enough? Did it have legs?

Well, at least in one sense.

But the vaudevillian throwback, which Fosse had conceived with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Cabaret"), had the misfortune of opening in the same year as Buffalo-native Michael Bennett's "A Chorus Line." The critics, for their part, were icy. In Bennett's shadow, "Chicago" turned in a respectable two-year run and then vanished in a puff of stage smoke.

Dancer and choreographer Anne Reinking, Fosse's muse and sometime girlfriend during the period when "Chicago" debuted, knew better than the critics. The instant she took over the role of infamous murderess Roxie Hart from Gwen Verdon late in the show's run, Reinking smelled a hit.

"I just wish that Bob could see how good it really was. I don't think any of them really thought it was as good as it was," Reinking said in a phone interview from her Arizona home. "But I did. Oh God, when I saw it, I knew it was brilliant."

Two decades later, Reinking's inkling about the show finally proved correct. She choreographed and starred in the 1996 Broadway revival of the musical, which began with a now legendary four-show run at New York City Center's Encores! series. Stripped down to its essence, rechoreographed and brightened a few shades over the original, the new "Chicago" became a multiple sensation, spawning a Broadway run that's still going strong, several tours, a major motion picture and millions of fans around the world.

Reinking, who was credited along with director Walter Bobbie for the show's mammoth success, recalled a story about the first of the four performances that launched the musical's renaissance.

"It was after the first act, during intermission. Fred [Ebb] goes over to John [Kander] and they're both bright-eyed and ecstatic. Fred says to John -- I think this is how it went -- he says, 'Geez, this is good! Who'd have thought it?' "

A touring version of the show will make a return trip to Shea's Performing Arts Center, where it last visited in 2005, for a six-day run starting Tuesday. Also returning are the show's two leads, Bianca Marroquin as Roxie and Terra McLeod as Velma Kelly.

>Dance-driven musical

"Chicago," for all the lushness of its pastiche-driven score, the clever sting of its lyrics and stylized suspense of its story line, is nothing if not a dance-driven show. It has been a vehicle for such stars as Verdon, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth and Reinking herself, not to mention screen stars Rene Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The show tells the sordid tale of Roxie Hart, a wanna-be performer who tries to pin the murder of her lover on her dimwitted husband. Sent to a women's prison to serve her term, Roxie encounters a whole cadre of characters, including the tough-as-nails performer Velma Kelly, with whom she eventually collaborates on her rocky path to stardom.

The whole thing is a send-up of the media's influence in the world of criminal justice and the cult of celebrity criminals that extends from Jesse James to O.J. Simpson and beyond.

Devotees of Rob Marshall's 2002 film will find little except the story to recognize in the stage version of the show, which uses completely different choreography and eschews set pieces and period costumes for a darkly rendered, abstract version of 1920s Chicago.

For Terra McLeod, who plays Velma Kelly in the show, this abstract vision of the period is part of the musical's unique appeal.

"In a way, it is so simplistic," McLeod said. "There's something I find kind of unique in that because it allows the audience to use their imagination. I don't think there's a lot of theater like that anymore."

"Chicago" is also unique because of its ensemble cast. Reinking noted that the show really has five stars -- Roxie, her husband Amos, Velma, the jailhouse matron Mama Morton and skeevy lawyer Billy Flynn -- each of whom gets ample stage time. But the one thing that truly sets "Chicago" apart from every other musical on Broadway is, inarguably, the dancing.

Fosse's choreography can be sublime in its strong-willed simplicity, in the way it conveys an attitude, a come-on or a cruel intention through the subtle flick of the wrist or cock of the head. But it's also propelled by a relentless energy that demands dancers of great fortitude and physical discipline.

The same has been said of Reinking's reconception of Fosse's vision for the show, which takes its inspiration from her old mentor but adds a layer of balletic grace and litheness to Fosse's often hard-edged style.

"The concepts are the same and the style is the same," Reinking said. "What I could remember, I used. What I couldn't remember had to be changed."

The only part of the show that retains Fosse's original work completely intact, Reinking said, is "Hot Honey Rag," a playful duet between Roxie and Velma.

Nonetheless, Fosse's stamp, firmly imprinted on Reinking, is still very much in evidence in the revival.

"It's all about pictures," McLeod said. "At any given moment, a photographer could come in and take a picture, and we all kind of look the same if you're doing it right. And that's the genius of the choreography. It's simple, it's highly stylized, which I love, and it's about expression. I don't even have to say anything, but how I'm moving my body is telling the story."

McLeod, who has been playing the role of Velma -- "She's far more vulnerable than people think, but she ain't gonna show it." -- for nearly six years, still has to go over the steps in her head before hitting the stage. She wouldn't dare go onstage cold, she said.

"If I'm still doing that, that's because I'm still trying to master an art form. And I love it because it's such an amazing challenge," McLeod said. "To master Fosse, I don't think your work is ever done."

For Reinking, who tailors each version of "Chicago" to the dancers cast, describes the two leads in this version of the show as the perfect analogues for Rivera and Verdon, or, for that matter, Reinking and Neuwirth.

"One is very soft, the other one is very sharp. One's legato and one's staccato, which is basically what those two characters are," Reinking said. "It's like salt and pepper, they just match each other so brilliantly in that sort of paradox way."

After more than three decades of work on the show (among many other projects), Reinking is convinced of its worthiness. But she still laments the fact that Fosse didn't live to see the success of a project into which he poured so much passion and energy, and about which he was so unsure.

"You're kind of flying blind," Reinking said about the show's creators, a slight chuckle in her voice. "It's hard, you're too close, you've gotta have a chance to get away from it. That's why we all ask you if we're any good. If you said no, I'd tell you you're lying. But I'd still have to ask."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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