The legs of the eternally vampy “Chicago” stretch back to 1975, when Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera first took the stage as the murderous yet irresistible showgirls Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
“Having Gwen and Chita to work with is what made this basically a movement kind of show,” director-choreographer Bob Fosse told Dance Magazine at the time, according to the Fosse biography “Razzle Dazzle” (which takes its title from a “Chicago” tune). “They’re both such ideal dancers — in other words, ideal instruments, like there’s almost nothing you can’t ask them to do that they can’t come damn close to doing!”
That DNA is why “Chicago” remains the purest song-and-dance show in town, whatever town it’s in — and it’s back in D.C. this week (at the Kennedy Center for the first time in its decades of touring). It’s the only human-size musical on the list of Broadway’s top five longest-running hits, a lithe outsider among the heavyweight spectacles “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King,” “Cats” and “Les Miserables.”
The timeless plot about justice and showbiz is delectably cynical, the jokes are crisp and the John Kander-Fred Ebb score cackles with mischief — but it all comes to life in the dancers’ bodies. The performance is written on the dangerous angles of elbows and hips and in come-hither slithers coaxing you toward the shady side of right and wrong.
It probably wasn’t the musical you did in high school. Technically, it’s hard — as challenging, in a different way, as its eternal dance rival “A Chorus Line,” the musical about gypsy angst that bested “Chicago” at the Tonys and, for a time, at the box office. But it gleams if polished right, as it was in that lean, fat-free 1996 Encores staging — sleek black costumes, no real set, orchestra center stage. That’s the production that quickly transferred to Broadway, where it continues to kick and to fling tours across the country and around the world.
“Makes an exhilarating case both for ‘Chicago’ as a musical for the ages and for the essential legacy of Fosse,” the New York Times raved.
For the past 20 years, Roxies and Velmas have come and gone, and come around again. At the Kennedy Center, R&B singer Brandy Norwood is stepping in to play Roxie opposite Terra C. MacLeod, who has logged long experience as Velma. (Norwood played the part on Broadway in 2015.) But for killer-dillers, as the show’s wry announcers calls them, with pedigree and class — squarely matched dynamic duos — this looks like the top of the list:
1975: Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon
If you YouTube rehearsal video of the original production, note how Verdon’s rubbery spine seems to be in perpetual undulation mode during the dreamy, vampy number “Roxie,” and how her legs and arms seem as loose as noodles. Watch Rivera’s muscular ferocity as she kicks and sprawls around the single chair during the wackadoodle solo “When Velma Takes the Stand.”
On “The Mike Douglas Show,” Verdon and Rivera slowly tiptoe and gently shimmy through “Nowadays” — the tempting hip twitches are minuscule, and the fingers lightly wag, “no, no.” It’s vaudeville just shy of burlesque, zipping into a lively Charleston-slapstick air as they dance the “Hot Honey Rag” finale that climaxes in cartwheels.
Rivera was in her 40s, Verdon was 50. Neither seemed capable of a dull move.
When Verdon came down with vocal nodes, she was quietly replaced for a month by Liza Minnelli. “The producers did not wish to have Miss Minnelli compared with Miss Verdon,” the New York Times reported. “This is pretty silly, for it would be like comparing a white wine with a red wine — Miss Verdon is a dancer who sings, and Miss Minnelli is a singer who dances, and both are separately and distinctively adorable.”
That Fosse-forged duo must have been just fine together: A few years later, Rivera and Minnelli co-starred in a new Kander and Ebb musical, “The Rink.”
Eventually, Verdon — Fosse’s third and final wife (they never divorced) — was replaced by another Fosse protege (and lover), Ann Reinking . . . who, small world, had just replaced Donna McKechnie as Cassie in “A Chorus Line.”
Which leads to . . .
1996: Ann Reinking
and Bebe Neuwirth
Reinking revived the Fosse choreography as the production’s central spectacle and anchored it with her own bubbly, fluid style. She was dazzlingly funny as the ventriloquist’s dummy on the knee of James Naughton’s silky flimflam lawyer Billy Flynn during “We Both Reached for the Gun.” And whose arms have ever executed the cocky little exiting snake wave more stylishly than Reinking’s?
“The most entertainingly erotic cartoon character since Jessica Rabbit,” Times critic Ben Brantley wrote of Reinking.
Then there was the revelation of Neuwirth, who, of course, was funny. “Hello, suckers,” she dryly greeted the audience, which couldn’t have been happier to be in her hands. But “Cheers” and “Frasier” fans could only watch agog at her dancing panache, from the sultry opening number and through the giddy, taxing inanity of “I Simply Cannot Do It Alone,” performing both parts of the vulgar double act she used to do with the sister she bumped off.
“An ecstatic benchmark performance,” Brantley declared. “The deliciously mechanical wriggle in her walk embodies the very soul of the show. And to see her turn her legs into a pair of air-slicing scissors, her face set in a bewitching expression of self-satisfaction, is like falling in love, against your better judgment, with a specialist in breaking hearts.”
The 1997 revival was a celebration — a deification, actually — of the Fosse style, etching it even more indelibly into the culture than the seemingly omnipresent “Cabaret.” With magnetic numbers showcasing two chorines pulsing with stardust dreams, the show plainly demanded dancers who could hold the spotlight with a stylish flick of the wrist.
Which leads to . . .
1997: Charlotte d’Amboise
and Jasmine Guy
For the first national tour, true dancers nabbed the roles. D’Amboise was out with an injury when the tour landed in Washington, but she quickly recovered and stepped back in (and is currently holding down the fort as Broadway’s Roxie). Opposite Guy in Los Angeles, Variety wrote in 1998 of d’Amboise, “Her limber physical style — she’s like a rag doll with a dizzy, dirty mind — is put to spectacular use.”
Like Neuwirth, Guy was a surprise to audiences who knew her only as Whitley from the “Cosby” spinoff “A Different World.” The discipline was flawless, though, as she convincingly aced each combination in “Velma Takes the Stand.”
“Jasmine Guy is a muscular little firecracker, a lithe Lizard Queen, whose mere back and shoulders, as she turns to walk offstage, are sexier than the average woman’s frontal charms,” Lloyd Rose wrote in The Post.
But Broadway dancers don’t grow on trees, and their names don’t mean much on movie marquees. Which leads to . . .
Goldie Hawn and Madonna
Takoma Park’s own Hawn has dance roots that go back to childhood. Her mother taught dance and Hawn trained, eventually swiveling her way into national view as a goofy go-go machine on TV’s “Laugh-In.” (Her daughter Kate Hudson made a strong impression in the movie musical “Nine” — director Rob Marshall holds the camera longer on her, slightly, than he ever does with his leads in the “Chicago” movie that was ultimately made.)
Could Hawn Fosse? She’s better than not bad in “All That Jazz” during the 1980 TV “Goldie and Liza Together.” And Madonna Louise Ciccone is plainly blood kin to the tough, conniving Velma. You’d love to see how she’d have danced her way through “When Velma Takes the Stand.”
Which leads to . . .
2002: Renée Zellweger and
Both stars were good as glamour pusses in the pokey — Zellweger alternately doelike and catty in a wavy blond bob, Zeta-Jones a flinty wiseacre with hair like a steely black helmet.
The actresses did their own dancing, yet what really moves is Marshall’s camera and the editor’s shears. There are roughly 80 shots for “Roxie,” with the camera pulsing between long shots and close-ups. “We Both Reached for the Gun” cuts faster than you can count. More than 100 shots are pieced together to create Zeta-Jones’s undeniably gymnastic performance of “I Can’t Do It Alone.”
The movie omits critical numbers for both dames, Roxie’s “Me and My Baby” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” In cinematic terms the finale is terrific, with Zellweger and Zeta-Jones in short, fringy, glistening white skirts, strutting and popping against a dazzling giant wall of lightbulbs. It looks great and gives the Oscar-winning picture a wry, upbeat finish.
Nice moviemaking, but its leading ladies are intensely sliced, spliced and frequently cut off at the knees. That’s not quite, as Brandy Norwood recently said of the stage, “the real show business” — the real “Chicago’s” stock in trade.
Chicago April 4-16 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets: $49-$159. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
Read more: Q&A with Brandy Norwood, stepping into “Chicago” as Roxie.
Read more: And then “Chicago” producer Barry Weissler told me to go to hell.