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Theater Review - Steamy city

Like its cast of rival femme fatales and revealingly clad chorus girls, the musical Chicago puts its most ample assets right up front. The show's first three numbers — "All That Jazz," "Funny Honey" and "Cell Block Tango" — aren't just Chicago's sultriest songs, although they could be marketed as homeopathic Viagra substitutes. They also feature some of John Kander's catchiest melodies and Fred Ebb's sneakiest lyrics.

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Top-heavy but not a tease, Aurora Theatre's slinky, uneven production generates more heat through the production's foreplay than its climax. In a double-edged satire of showbiz and the criminal justice system, two fame-craving murderesses, Velma Kelly (Kirsten Stiff) and Roxie Hart (Jan MacQueen), struggle for both the limelight and the favor of super-litigator Billy Flynn (Robert Egizio).

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Egizio and MacQueen both live up to Chicago's celebration of star quality. In the numbers "All I Care About" and "Razzle Dazzle," Egizio exudes arrogance with such grace and ease, Flynn becomes an almost likable shark. MacQueen, who also choreographs the show, makes Roxie equal parts front-row flirt and profane spitfire, like Betty Boop with sharpened claws. Other players command the stage with less confidence. Kirsten Stiff literally hurls herself into Velma's athletic, desperate dance numbers, but the actress overdoes the role's excesses. The character loses focus, alternating from ditz to snob to vamp without sharp definition.

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Director Alan Kilpatrick's stripped-down staging effectively turns chairs and steam into erotic props, but some numbers suffer from being too spare. "Razzle Dazzle" sings the praise of beads, feathers and sequins, but the number's only frills are a large mirror and the dancers' black-and-white costumes. The faux ventriloquist act "We Both Reached for the Gun," and the baggy-pants soft shoe "Me and My Baby" provide high-energy charms, but Chicago's dramatic thrust gradually fizzles out.

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No small theater should be held to the standard of a famous movie, but the Oscar-winning Chicago film enriched the stage material by turning the songs into an imaginary Greek chorus to real events, not just a feverish burlesque show. At its best, though, Aurora's Chicago bumps and grinds with gusto and finds the relevance in the show's jaundiced take on celebrity, justice and media frenzies. Cynicism is seldom this sexy.

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Chicago runs through Sept. 4 at Aurora Theatre, 3087-B Main St., Duluth. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7 p.m. $18-$25. 770-476-7926. www.auroratheatre.com.