BWW Reviews: Barks, Simpson, Moyer, Lawless Headline Shields-Helmed CHICAGO at the Hollywood Bowl
There are a few things you can count on with Los Angeles summers: tank tops and sandals are required fashion staples, traffic is still a hellish nightmare even with kids out of school, and over at the world-famous Hollywood Bowl---that massive outdoor entertainment mecca that can seat a swarm of 17,000 patrons for acts as diverse as The Beatles to Barbra Streisand to Arcade Fire---there's always plenty of eye-opening (and, yes, ear-opening) surprises in store from their annual star-studded concert staging of a Broadway musical.
This year's offering raised many intrigued eyebrows upon its first announcement: that actress Brooke Shields---last seen locally in the pre-Broadway tryout of the musical LEAP OF FAITH and the stage play adaptation of THE EXORCIST---will this time be stepping behind the scenes and directing this year's Bowl summer showtunes showcase... CHICAGO - THE MUSICAL, that naughty-good, vaudeville-licious John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse musical masterwork about a couple of murderous, celebrity-seeking femme fatales who both use their crimes as a stepping stone to gain further fame and notoriety, and to ultimately get their names up on marquis lights... providing they avoid the death penalty first. The show's starry opening night performance---marking Shield's directorial debut---was Friday, July 26 and continues with a pair of additional performances throughout the weekend.
And as with each annual summer musical at the Hollywood Bowl, the "stunt-casting" of high-profile actors---most of whom are famously known in entertainment realms outside of musical theater---automatically elevates the concert into a must-see theatrical event (even before the actual rehearsals for the show even start).
A gander at 2013's top tier cast list continues the tradition: Pop star/actress AshLee Simpson plays Roxie Hart; True Blood's Stephen Moyer plays snarky lawyer Billy Flynn; former eponymous sitcom star and now Price Is Right host Drew Carey plays Amos Hart; TV icon Lucy Lawless plays Matron "Mama" Morton; and, finally, UK stage phenom Samantha Barks rounds out the big name stars as vaudeville showstopper-turned-killer Velma Kelly (Barks, of course, recently raised her global profile thanks to her well-received starring role as Eponine in last December's big-screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning stage hit LES MISERABLES).
The anticipation to see such actors venture into live song-and-dance musical theater is always a thrilling one. Though, over the years of witnessing these Bowl spectaculars first-hand, the results of such casting choices have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. While there were no OMG jaw-droppingly outstanding Nicole Scherzinger-caliber (or, heck, even Dane Cook-type) surprises from a non-musical theater actor this year, the musical performances from this year's crop of stars have been largely pleasing.
A particularly nice surprise is hearing the old-school crooning of Moyer as Flynn. Not only can the guy mug while gliding up and down the stage as if he's ventured showtunes territory before, he can also---yes, ladies and gentlemen---even belt out the high notes in his solos in "All I Care About Is Love," "We Both Reach For The Gun," and, later, "Razzle Dazzle" without a noticeable hint of uncertainty (He even allows a funny but quick, blink-and-you'll-miss-it homage to his vampiric True Blood alter-ego in the latter number). Dashing and believably alluring, Moyer---already a seasoned stage play vet in the UK---should really think about cultivating Broadway musicals as a post-True Blood career transition. (I can see him play a Lt. Cable-type character, or am I alone in this?)
Funny guy Carey garners easy laughs as the luckless Amos, the fidgety doormat married to a cheating wife. Though it was a bit more difficult to separate the real Carey from the role he's portraying in this show (I thought he was more distinctive in his Bowl appearance in HAIRSPRAY two years ago), it was an otherwise charming performance, particularly his delightful rendition of "Mr. Cellophane."
And while part of me really wished the show's creative team allowed a big, growly-voiced gospel singer to take on the role of "Mama" Morton, casting Lawless as the bribe-happy jailhouse queen bee was a nifty out-of-the-box choice that was ultimately pretty successful. She always has a commanding air about her and her singing voice is actually nice (she does an admirable job in both "When You're Good to Mama" and her duet with Barks in "Class").
As for the show's Roxie Hart, Simpson---who has played the role before in the West End and Broadway productions of Chicago---did a generally fine job essaying the lead role. Though her breathless, semi-eccentric delivery and curious facial contortions can be slightly off-putting at times, her smoky singing voice sounds great in certain songs, particularly as she starts "Nowadays"---a moment of genuine vulnerability that, unfortunately, wasn't so palpable in the rest of the show. To her credit, she's quite a great dancer and her buoyant cheerfulness in "Roxie" beams all the way out even to the cheaper bench seats a gazillion miles to the back of the bowl.
But more than anything else about this staged concert of Chicago, the one true aspect that everyone can agree on wholeheartedly is just how amazing Barks is as Velma Kelly. Fierce, sexy, witty, and defiant, Barks---in an extreme contrast to her role as a beautifully-voiced, smudge-covered peasant in the LES MIS film---really kills it in the show.
Right off the bat, the obvious triple-threat opens the show with a rousing, sexy-hot "All That Jazz"---an early sign of more great, belt-tastic vocals to come from this newly-minted star. Able to convey crassness, intelligence, vulnerability, and, yep, even desperation---despite the big-ness of such a huge stage---Barks is without a doubt this production's best (and, frankly, most legit) asset. The gal can sing both ballads and uptempo, dance-heavy numbers with equal aplomb (Funny enough, a side-effect of singing a duet with Barks is the revelation of the other person's musical weaknesses---but that it also coaxes that other person to at least attempt to rise to her level). Later, she and the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail perform one of the best "Cell Block Tango" renditions I've ever heard or seen on a stage.
This production of Chicago also has an excellent supporting ensemble; and from that crop of writhing musical theater specialists emerged a standout worth mentioning: D. Tablak as Mary Sunshine. Stealing the show with every appearance, I can honestly say that in the many productions of the stage musical I have seen, Tablak's beautifully-rendered counter-tenor voice is the best-sounding Mary Sunshine I have ever witnessed. (When Sunshine's secret is finally revealed in all its glory, I was flabbergasted to learn that the person playing the role is someone I've seen---and, yep, fangirled---countless times at the Mad Tea Party over at Disney California Adventure---what a small world after all!)
Overall---despite a few minor opening night flubbed lines and missed cues---the Hollywood Bowl's concert presentation of Chicago is a valiant, admirable production that is genuinely entertaining and filled with terrific musical numbers. But, honestly, even though I was more than entertained by Shields' truncated presentation that mirrors the moods and methods of Walter Bobbie's still-running/still-touring 1996 Broadway revival, there is just something strangely cold and detached about the show---but not significantly enough to completely mar the experience. I laughed, I smiled, I sang along... oddly enough, though Chicago seems to be the kind of show that favors an intimately-staged environment, the enormity of the Bowl's stage was still a nice fit.
Thanks to the show's silly celeb-fueled antics, the Bowl's awesome-sounding orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher, Barks' impressive star-quality performance, the classic Kander and Ebb music, and the Bob Fosse/Ann Reinking-inspired choreography, this is one ultimately enjoyable revisit to Chicago.
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Watch performances from Opening Night Here.
Photos from the Opening Night Performance of Chicago - THE MUSICAL at the Hollywood Bowl by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging ©2013. From top: Velma Kelly (Barks) and Roxie Hart (Simpson) form a wicked double act. This page: shady lawyer Billy Flynn (Moyer) flanked by admirers; "Mama" Morton (Lawless) belts it out; Flynn (Moyer) confuses Amos (Carey); Mary Sunshine (Tablak) extolls the virtues of journalism; Roxie (Simpson) celebrates her celeb status; Velma (Barks) shimmies to All That Jazz.
Performances of Chicago - THE MUSICAL, featuring direction by Brooke Shields, musical direction by Rob Fisher, and choreography by Gregory Butler continue at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, July 27 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, July 28 (at 7:30 pm).
Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.