If our culture had managed to advance sufficiently since 1975, when the biting musical "Chicago" landed in Broadway, the show might be considered just harmless, lively entertainment now.
Then again, if our culture had greatly matured since 1924, when the real-life murder trials that inspired the musical took place, there might not even have been a "Chicago."
As every encounter with this brilliantly crafted musical reconfirms -- and the high-temperature national touring production currently at the Hippodrome does some mighty powerful reconfirming -- we're still hopelessly addicted to celebrity, no matter how criminal in nature or blatantly manufactured; still afflicted with short attention spans; still prone to fall for sure bets or exploit those who do.
This, needless to say, is not the main reason why "Chicago," running now through March 8 at the Hippodrome, is such a perennial hit. In what might be the ultimate act of manipulation, the show is so damn entertaining, so irresistible in word and song -- book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, lyrics by Ebb, richly retro music by John Kander -- that you never have to stop and consider the underside of society. You can just soak up all that jazz.
There is certainly visceral pleasure to be had from the attractive surfaces of this touring "Chicago," with its sleek, nightclub-y set (John Le Beatty) and slinky costumes (William Ivey Long).
But for all the gloss, there's no glossing over the bitter stuff bubbling behind the catchiest tunes and beneath the bounciest rhythms. The still-edgy plot about two women imprisoned for murder, but turned into media stars with a good chance for acquittal, continues to register strongly.
Re-creating Walter Bobbie's direction of the 1996 production still playing in New York, director David Hyslop has molded a superbly disciplined, fully responsive touring cast that manages to make everything look and sound spontaneous.
And when the performers swing into dance mode (David Bushman has re-created Ann Reinking's "in the style of Bob Fosse" choreography), they leap, stretch, slither and insinuate their little hearts out in perfect sync.
As for the leads in the cast, Bianca Marroquín triumphs as Roxie Hart, the trigger-happy chorine who dispatches her lover and initially sweet-talks her hapless husband into taking the blame. The actress is brilliant at conveying Roxie's mercurial mood swings, the self-deprecation, the bursts of confidence and delusional grandeur.
And Marroquín is a hilarious virtuoso with asides and facial expressions, talents that enable her to deliver an especially brilliant account of Roxie's Act 1 monologue and I'm-going-to-be-a-star solo (among Kander and Ebb's most inventive numbers in the score).
The vivacious, smoky-voiced Terra C. MacLeod makes the show's other anti-heroine, Velma Kelly, one tough, um, lady. MacLeod also lets the character's vulnerability slip through tellingly as well.
John O'Hurley, of "Seinfeld" fame, shows off sturdy song-and-dance chops as Billy Flynn, the beyond-slick lawyer who knows how to deliver every kind of "razzle dazzle" to save a client from death row.
Helping to give the production an extra kick is Roz Ryan, who has owned the role of the penitentiary's Matron "Mama" Morton for nearly two decades and still animates it with personality to spare.
Jacob Keith Watson gives a winning performance as Roxie's hapless husband Amos, holding the audience in the upturned palms of his white-gloved hands while wallowing in the self-pity of "Mr. Cellophane." And D. Ratell does a vocally sparkling, deliciously duplicitous job as the world's cheeriest reporter.
A dynamic band, led by Robert Billig, digs into the colorfully orchestrated score (note how a slippery violin solo in the intro of Flynn's entrance number, "All I Care About," softly speaks volumes about the character).
If a few songs go on a little too long, and if the final duet for Roxie and Velma is rather anticlimactic, musically and theatrically, "Chicago" still adds up to a one heck of a musical. And this touring production delivers it all with fresh, stimulating fire.