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Posted on Sun, Jan. 09, 2005

THEATER

Chicago, Chicago


BLOCKBUSTER SHOW SUCCEEDS THROUGH THE YEARS, THROUGH THE TRANSFORMATIONS



Mercury News

When the Chicago Tribune hired Maurine Dallas Watkins to cover crime from a ``feminine perspective'' in 1924, they had no idea the cub reporter soon would become the darling of the front page, cranking out one shocking tale of blood and lust after another, the refined sensibilities of the ladies' page be damned.

Take, for instance, the story of Beulah Annan, the cold-blooded flapper who shot her lover in the back, then played ``Hula Lou'' on the phonograph as the beau bled to death. Snappy headline: Woman Plays Jazz Air as Victim Dies.

Then came Belva Gaertner, a gay divorcee making hay with a married man. When he turned up dead, and police found the murder weapon on her person, Gaertner claimed she had quaffed too much gin to recall the details.

When both women got away with murder, Watkins turned in her reporter's notebook and headed for Broadway.

Beulah and Belva soon were reborn as Roxie and Velma in ``Chicago,'' Watkins' play from 1926 about killer chorines on the make. The story turned out to have great legs.

Here's a quick look at the major stage and screen adaptations inspired by Watkins' Page One copy. It's a cynical commentary on the dark side of the media, the justice system, and all that jazz.

THE PLAY (1926)

Watkins wowed the Great White Way with her biting portrait of two gimlet-eyed dames with no morals but plenty of moxie. On their way to the top, they make everyone else out to be suckers. Watkins went on to a career as a Hollywood screenwriter, but she never had another hit like ``Chicago.''

THE GINGER ROGERS PICTURE (1942)

Rogers showed off her comedienne chops in ``Roxie Hart,'' as a hoofer who agrees to be accused of murder to further her career. Adolphe Menjou played her shyster lawyer, always eager to tap dance around the truth.

THE MUSICAL (1975)

``Chicago's'' fishnet-clad femme fatales burst into song on Broadway, with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as the tawdry divas and the late Jerry Orbach as their greasy lawyer Billy Flynn. Overshadowed by ``A Chorus Line,'' this ``Chicago'' came up with zilch at the Tony Awards despite its to-die-for score (by John Kander and Fred Ebb) and choreography (by Bob Fosse). Some say the show may have been too caustic for its day.

THE REVIVAL (1996)

When director Walter Bobbie brought ``Chicago'' back to the stage, it was the age of Jerry Springer, not to mention O.J. Simpson -- lurid miscarriages of justice were all the rage. Bobbie's hard-boiled production fed the public's widespread cynicism and went on to win six Tonys. Bebe Neuwirth earned raves for her red-hot turn as Velma (they are still talking about the way she straddled that chair), Fosse protegee Ann Reinking tore up the stage as Roxie and Joel Grey was the ultimate sap as Amos, the hubby Roxie dupes.

In 2000, this production became Broadway's longest-running musical revival ever -- and it's still packing them in today. A cavalcade of stars has sashayed through its cast, including Billy Zane and Melanie Griffith. The national touring version slinks into San Jose this week with Gregory Harrison (see accompanying story) as the oil-spill-on-legs called Flynn.

THE MOVIE MUSICAL (2002)

Rob Marshall's glammed-up Hollywood version of ``Chicago'' lit the screen with megawatt star power. Renée Zellweger pouted up a storm as brassy Roxie, Catherine Zeta Jones gave a Slinky a run for its money as sly Velma, Richard Gere oozed sleaze as the untrustworthy attorney and Queen Latifah strutted her stuff as jail matron Mama Morton. Not only did the film win six Oscars (including best picture) but it breathed life into the long-thought-dead genre of movie musicals. Fosse's signature style -- the bowler hat and thrust-hip strut -- gave the movie its drop-dead gorgeous look (though some dance aficionados still found the footwork lacking).

`Chicago'

Presented by American Musical Theatre

of San Jose

Where: Center for Performing Arts, 255 Almaden St.

When: Opens Tuesday; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 23

Tickets: $41-$72; (408) 277-5277, www.amtsj.org


Contact Karen D'Souza at kdsouza@mercurynews.com or (408) 271-3772.

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