With her appetite for self-dramatization, her lust for fame, and her lack of discernible talent, Roxie Hart would have been a natural for today’s “reality” TV.
The connections between the Jazz Age and our own age are implicit but inescapable in “Chicago,” which has arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for a short run that ends Sunday.
A mordant, ink-dark sendup of celebrity culture, a corrupt legal system, tabloid journalism, and showbiz, “Chicago” remains a warhorse with bite.
It was created by a Hall of Fame team if ever there was one: John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics and book), and Bob Fosse (book and direction of the 1975 premiere production on Broadway), all at the peak of their powers.
The result was a show that has enough built-in strengths to carry it past some flawed performances in key roles at the Colonial.
Crucially, Katie Frieden is superb as Roxie. An ex-chorine married to a mechanic in late 1920s Chicago, Roxie murders her lover when he tries to walk out on her, then uses the slaying as her ticket to fame. She’s driven by the kind of restless, ravening ambition that undergirds at least part of the American Dream.
Her partner in this enterprise is Billy Flynn (Connor Sullivan), an amoral and opportunistic defense attorney whose eye is always on the main chance. Not unlike Roxy, Billy sees criminal justice as theater, with himself as the star. In one memorable scene, to the tune of “We Both Reached for the Gun,” Frieden goes limp, like a puppet, while seated on Sullivan’s lap, and he plays the ventriloquist, manipulating (and speaking for) her.
As Roxie and Billy scheme, Roxie’s hapless husband (Robert Quiles) seems to be the perfect fall guy. Meanwhile, Velma Kelly (Kailin Brown), Roxie’s jailhouse nemesis, is seething at being usurped, having previously been Billy’s top priority.
Training her mercenary gaze on them all is Matron “Mama” Morton (a very good Illeana “illy” Kirven), who presides over the Cook County Jail and demands bribes from inmates for any favor that will make their incarceration more tolerable.
“Chicago” combines the satisfactions of a solidly constructed musical with a certain edginess and sense of adventure. The crowd at Tuesday night’s performance seemed up for all of it; when the first notes of “Cell Block Tango” were played, they burst into applause.
Central to the production’s impact is its dynamic ensemble, a cadre of black-clad singers and dancers who bring style and sizzle to this “Chicago," which is presented in vaudeville style and has no set to speak of. The orchestra, located upstage on a raised platform and conducted by Cameron Blake Kinnear, plays Kander’s music with the gusto it requires and deserves.
When it comes to the actors, the level of performance is variable in this “Chicago," the latest stop of a non-Equity tour, helmed by David Hyslop, recreating the original direction from the 1996 tour, with Gregory Butler recreating the original choreography.
Sullivan is a commanding presence as Billy, and he sings well — at one point at Tuesday night’s performance, he held a note longer than seemed humanly possible, drawing cheers from the crowd. But Sullivan’s Billy could use more of the silky, roguish charisma that enables the lawyer to cast a spell over clients, judges, and juries.
Playing Velma, Brown excels when a scene requires movement — performing at one point while high up on a ladder — but overall doesn’t succeed in making Velma’s world-weariness seem like much more than petulance.
Then there’s poor Amos. While he’s supposed to be a sad sack, Quiles’s portrayal is so broad that the poignancy of a decent man surrounded by venality does not register. Amos does not garner as much of our sympathy as he should.
At the time “Chicago” premiered on Broadway, it had only been a year since Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency, and the musical is suffused with Watergate-era cynicism as it demonstrates how easy it is to undermine the institutions that theoretically hold the nation together.
It seems safe to say we’re in another one of those moments. And when it comes to the costs of that kind of corrosion from within, “Chicago” will always have things to say.
Original direction recreated by David Hyslop. Original choreography recreated by Gregory Butler. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through Dec. 3. Tickets start at $45. www.BroadwayInBoston.com