You've got to wonder if the actual city of Chicago appreciates the association with a lively little musical about murder. We're not going to ask, though. If "Chicago" at the Orpheum teaches you anything, it's to stay on their good side up there.
Bianca Marroquin is Roxie, a would-be cabaret star who one night decides to exercise her Second Amendment right not to have her boyfriend walk out on her. Her clueless husband (sublimely dopey Jacob Keith Watson) refuses to take the murder rap, her high-priced lawyer pushes her around and her cellmate is another jazz-murder diva who doesn't appreciate anyone stealing her act, so all told it's shaping up to be a pretty bad week. But the juiciness of the story makes starry-eyed, fame-seeking Roxie the biggest name in town and she might get a shot at stardom after all... if she beats the charge. After all, Illinois is a hanging state.
At the very beginning we have some bones to pick with the artistic choices here. The set remains static throughout, a minimalist black-space representation of a jazz club. While it's nice to see the orchestra center-stage (the conductor even gets in on a couple of particularly charming jokes), having them there the whole time creates the impression that the stage is crowded and the dancers don't have enough room.
The combination of smoky lighting and emptiness makes it seem like the characters are hanging out in a weird, Sartre-laced afterlife. William Ivey Long's sleek, simple costumes are refreshing at first, but as the show closed in on the two-hour mark, we started to wish for something with a little more pizzazz to perk up our eyes.
It's clear that they didn't want everyone looking like a bad Gatsby party or a Vegas showroom version of the '20s, and that's surely a good instinct. But what we have here is pared back so much it looks like a rehearsal rather than the show. So yes, this "Chicago" has the visual panache of someone who got dressed in the dark (which is our standard routine, so we would know), and that's too bad.
To make up for that we have John Kander's killer score and a few really, really great actors. You may notice that former "Seinfeld" actor John O'Hurley, last seen in San Francisco in "Spamalot" a few years back, is awfully prominent on the poster. By which we mean, he's the entire poster, even though he's playing a supporting role as Roxie's cagey lawyer mastermind. But holy shit does he deserve it!
That voice, those eyebrows; how is it possible no one threw panties at him? (We'd have done it, but throwing boxer briefs just doesn't have the same effect.) And it's not just Sinatra-sutra charm he brings to the stage, ladies and gentlemen (although...), but also a steely, almost sociopathic performance that stays on juuust the right side of disturbing. "Chicago" is honestly a little muddled before he enters, but he swiftly whips things into shape.
"Chicago's" second best asset is Marroquin herself. While some Roxies have just been grasping connivers, Marroquin is downright adorable, with the kitten-like naivete of someone in WAY over her head. She's like the prize in a box of cereal; how can you not love her? This makes not only the role, but also the entire show better, since the audience is free to go gaga over Roxie the same way the city of Chicago does, and she provides much-needed contrast with the two-faced rest of the cast.
You'd think all this would be hindered by the fact that we see her put three bullets into a guy, but "Chicago" makes you winkingly complicit in such things to the point that you're quite ready to get on its good side no matter what.
"Chicago" is fun like you want it to be and catchy like you want it to be. It is not, unfortunately, as pretty as you want it to be. However, if we learn anything from this, it's that a pretty face might not be all it's cracked up to be anyway.
The show is good for: Unflappable flappers.
The show is not good for: Hung juries.
"Chicago" plays through Nov. 16 at the Orpheum, 1192 Market St. in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 888-746-1799 or visit ShnSF.com