A quiz for you, theater-loving reader: When was the last time a professional Chicago theater company produced "Chicago," a musical that burnishes the city's scandalous reputation each and every night on Broadway?
I'm not talking about Barry and Fran Weissler's tour of director Walter Bobbie's megahit, brilliantly marketed 1996 Broadway revival, still aptly advertised on the trash cans of Midtown as "Broadway's Sure Thing" and a road show, a very fine road show, that played Chicago so many times that some of us came to memorize every last darn twitch of the ensemble. (I've reviewed it at least a dozen times. The cast kept changing, and there were some brilliant performances. But, for the record, there never was anyone therein quite like Chita Rivera).
No. I'm talking about a "Chicago" with a Chicago pedigree — and that matters not least because the musical was based on the 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, former crime reporter at this very newspaper.
In my book, "Bigger, Brighter, Louder," you'll find Watkins' front-page Tribune news stories from 1924 that formed the basis of the play and then the musical. Velma Kelly was really Belva Gaertner. Roxie Hart was really Beulah Annan. Watkins got her pseudonyms from an old murder case in Indiana. But she wrote her material in the very newsroom where I am writing this column.
So here's the answer to that question: That production took place in 1983 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, as directed by David H. Bell. The incomparable Alene Robertson was Mary Sunshine. Barbara Robertson was Roxie. Karen Curlee was Velma. John Reeger was Billy Flynn (the great critic Richard Christiansen, ever the precise reporter, reported that Reeger's entrance featured him sliding down a fire pole in his underwear). The late Vince Viverito was Amos. Susan Hart and Iris Lieberman were in the chorus.
Since then, if you've seen a "Chicago" in Chicago done by pros, you've been watching the tour. The Weisslers well understood that Chicago was a linchpin of "Chicago" on the road, and that the only way to keep up demand was to make sure that none of the local theaters could get the rights to the show. Fair enough. That's show business.
But it all changes Friday when the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace opens its own original production. It's the result of what the artistic director, Bill Osetek, describes as a "10-year quest" to get the rights to the show. "We went through three different reps at (licensing agency) Samuel French," Osetek told me. "At one point, we were calling them every single week. Every single week."
At one surreal moment a couple of years ago, Osetek and Drury Lane actually had a contract to produce the show, only for French to call and say they were taking it back. Such was the determination to protect the demand for the tour.
But Osetek's dogged persistence paid off. And now he's determined to do something completely different from the "Chicago" (which was based on a concert staging) that you've seen downtown. "That one was a deconstruction," Osetek said. "Ours is a reconstruction."
That means scenery. Changes in locale. Some of the characters from the play being restored to the musical. The Drury Lane version, though, is not being shorn of the choreographic stylings of Bob Fosse, with which it is intrinsically linked. Osetek said that Jane Lanier's choreography would be true to the spirit of Fosse "without replicating the steps."
I wish I could report this was an entirely local cast. I love seeing out-of-towners in Chicago shows, but, well, in this particular case, it's just been so long. Alas, that did not happen. By way of explanation, Osetek pointed out the competition for Chicago's small band of genuine triple-threats, whose schedules filled up early, and his desire to give his audience the very best he could. "We are completely dedicated to the Chicago actor at our theater," he said, and history backs up that assertion.
So. On Friday night, the first Chicago "Chicago" in a generation opens in Oakbrook Terrace. It stars Broadway performers Kelly Felthous as Roxie and Alena Watters as Velma (neither has done the role). The principal cast also includes Guy Lockard (Billy Flynn), Justin Brill (Amos Hart), Michael Accardo (Master of Ceremonies), and, in a special hometown appearance, E. Faye Butler as Matron Mama Morton.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.