BWW Reviews: Brinkley Headlines CHICAGO Tour in L.A. Return
Even after the umpteenth time seeing the show, it's hardly a surprise that the six-time Tony-winning 1996 Revival of CHICAGO is still earning cheers and packing in audiences both on Broadway (now in its 16th year!) and its still-running national tour—the latter of which has shimmied its way back to L.A. for a return engagement at the Pantages Theatre through May 27. One of John Kander and Fred Ebb's funniest, most enjoyable musicals, this blockbuster hit is a bawdy, wit-laced satire of the pleasures and perils of instant infamy and the corruption it perpetuates.
To keep things fresh over the years, this stage incarnation of CHICAGO has itself become synonymous with periodic stunt-casting—that often frowned-upon, but often profitable practice of putting a Big Name Star in the lead role of a stage musical. Though these stars may not necessarily have had much prior experience in musical theater, their name recognition alone almost guarantees butts in seats (it's certainly something the producers of the fictional show-within-a-show attempted recently in the Broadway-themed TV drama SMASH).
For this go-round, the show's swing through San Diego and L.A. is offering up supermodel turned health-and-fitness empress Christie Brinkley in the lead role of Roxie Hart—the very same role that ushered her Broadway and West End debuts. Also joining Brinkley on stage is TV and musical theater vet John O'Hurley in the role of lawyer Billy Flynn.
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago (natch) during the scandal-hungry roaring twenties—many decades before viral videos and snarky tweets propelled ordinary nobodies into instant celebrities—the vaudeville-stylized story follows chorine Roxie (Brinkley) who longs for marquis stardom on the stage. But unfortunately for her (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how one looks at the situation), her overnight stardom came in the form of a headline-grabbing scandal: Roxie—who is married to doormat husband Amos (Ron Orbach)—murders her lover-on-the-side Fred Casely (Brent Heuser) after a night of passionate lovemaking and violent quarrelling.
While awaiting trial, Roxie is sent to the women's facility in Cook County Jail, where she's incarcerated alongside other infamous fellow "merry murderesses." The motley lot includes former vaudeville star Velma Kelly (the terrific Amra-Faye Wright), now in jail for killing her husband and her sister after witnessing the two in bed together doing the "spread eagle."
The cellblock is run by bribe-taking Matron "Mama" Morton (the superb Carol Woods) who often does favors to her charges... for a price, of course. As expected, Roxie's heralded arrival proves to be quite troublesome for former star and prison queen bee Velma, especially after Roxie steals the attention of her high-powered attorney Billy Flynn (O'Hurley).
Filled with playfully memorable Kander-and-Ebb tunes, a still-inventively-told storyline, and Bob Fosse-inspired choreography repurposed by Fosse's own muse Ann Reinking, this revival of CHICAGO still does not disappoint, though its age certainly shows. Limber, sexy dancing, outlandishly-behaved characters, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments that sometimes break the fourth wall all add up to why this show continues to be so well-liked, and why it later went on to be adapted into an Academy Award-winning Best Picture film as well.
Luckily, all of these flashy elements—the distracting "Razzle Dazzle" if you will—also work well in Ms. Brinkley's favor. Despite a wan, timid singing voice and a lot of forced dialogue deliveries, Brinkley still manages to be somewhat appealing and cute-sy in the role. Her version of Roxie is less of a think-on-your-feet opportunist that previous actresses have brought to the role; instead, she channels more of a naive dim bulb blonde that accidentally lands on good circumstances. She's a grown-up Kewpie doll trying to deal with adult-world problems.
For Brinkley to take on this normally very showy, song-and-dance heavy role (which in this iteration appears to have been simplified a bit for her) feels at least worthy of a pat on the back. It must have also been quite challenging being surrounded by such stellar, seasoned musical pros—all of whom probably only highlighted her limited musical theater skill set by comparison.
As her chief rival Velma, Wright is delightfully devilish and has the vocal pipes and precise dance moves to back it up. Playing the most influential member of the press, R. Lowe embodies the role of Mary Sunshine with the most impressive, uh, soprano voice I've ever heard of all the actors that have played the part. As Roxie's poor, oh-so-invisible schlubby hubby Amos, Orbach elicits most of the audience's empathy, prompting a cheerful response to his rendition of "Mr. Cellophane" which he peppers equal parts humility and hutzpah.
But the evening's clear audience favorite (as is mine) is Woods in the grand-slam role of "Mama" Morton. With a diva-licious belty voice that's strong, sassy and spiritual, her riff-splendant "When You're Good To Mama" rightly deserves the longest applause of the show. Even her brief appearances with a line or two here and there are grin-inducing. And as smarmy $5,000-a-case lawyer Billy Flynn, O'Hurley is absolutely debonair and sinister; he looks just as home here as he was as King Arthur in SPAMALOT a few seasons ago.
Though not as viscerally impactful as its earlier runs, CHICAGO is still a fun, enjoyable musical theater piece to take in. The scant subtle trims and re-staging choices that have since been enacted into the show under tour director Scott Faris—perhaps to accommodate their headliner's musical theater shortcomings—do not fully diminish from its overall entertaining prowess. And though it's quite hard not to ignore our lead star's weaker chops, you will no doubt be floored by the incredible, top-notch talent that hovers all around her.
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Photo by Jeremy Daniel courtesy of Broadway/L.A.
Performances of the National Tour of CHICAGO at the Pantages Theatre continue through May 27, 2012 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org.