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OCT puts on a vibrant version of 'Chicago'

“Chicago” is the musical that won’t die.

Based on a sensational 1924 play about two real-life women accused of murders in the city of the title, the musical stormed onto Broadway in 1975, directed and choreographed unforgettably by Bob Fosse with a book by Fosse and Fred Ebb and music by John Kander. The show got mixed reviews but ran 936 performances.

A 1996 revival entitled “Chicago: The Musical,” came to Broadway in 1996 to raves and became the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, still running after more than 8,000 performances.

Oregon Cabaret Theater’s glitzy new production, directed by Trevor Bishop, is stripped down for OCT’s intimate space and has its original subtitle back: “A Musical Vaudeville.” A cast of 13 hoof and sing on a Craig Hudson-designed set with lights that make the stage look bigger than it is, to music by the classic jazz combo of piano, bass and drums.

The electric, Fosse-inspired dance moves are here, along with the sexiness and the darkly satirical look at a jazz-age world in which murder and celebrity mix, and a corrupt system dishes it up as entertainment to a jaded public.

Chorus girl Roxie Hart (Deanna Ott) murders her cheating boyfriend and talks her dim-bulb husband, Amos (Billy Breed), into taking the rap. In jail, Roxie and another femme fatale, Velma Kelly (Layli Kayhani), cope with a corrupt system presided over by jail matron “Mama” Morton (Tamara Marston), vie for the attention of “sob sister” journalist Mary Sunshine (Kerry Lambert), and compete for the legal legerdemain of slick defense lawyer Billy Flynn (Galloway Stevens).

One of the strengths of “Chicago” is Kander’s songs. The show’s signature tune, the anthemic “All That Jazz,” gets a sultry treatment from a sparkling Kayhani and company. The character of Velma is based “Texas” Guinan, a Broadway insider, speakeasy owner and movie star of the 1920s.

The other main characters are based on Vaudeville personalities, as well. Roxie was based on Helen Morgan, Billy Flynn on Ted Lewis and “Mama” Morton on Sophie Tucker. And vaudeville tropes run through the songs, from the advice-to-the-wise of “When You’re Good to Mama” (Marston) to the cynicism of “All I Care About” (Stevens) to the amorally ambitious “Roxy” (Ott).

A couple of songs from the original Broadway score have been omitted in this adaptation, and there’s really not a weak song in the bunch. Even numbers not involving the main parts — Mary Sunshine’s darkly funny “A Little Bit of Good,” Amos’s self-pitying “Mister Cellophane" come to mind — are musically compelling while moving the story forward.

This adaptation has softened a bit of the snark from the original, which struck critics and audience members as deeply cynical. Of course, media events such as the O.J. Simpson trial have blurred the real-world line between crime and celebrity. Also missing is the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall that marked the original and was never a big hit with audiences.

Still, there’s the spectacle of sexy, ambitious murderers vying for attention from a cynical press engaged in the worst kind of pack journalism, pandering to a public hungry for this week’s scandal before moving on, inevitably, to the Next Big Thing (it always seemed like the show should have had a song with that title).

Whatever your take on the play, this is a bright, energetic production driven by high-wattage performances by Kayhani, Ott and Stevens. Bishop’s direction nods at Fosse without slavish copying. Katie Wackowski’s choreography is eye-popping sexy, with homage to vaudeville. Kody Jonhson’s projections comment on the action, quote the songs and add the occasional joke. If you like the play, this is a vibrant production of it.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.