This season, as part of my on-going efforts to educate myself and become more effective as a theatre blogger, I am going to accept media passes for (and therefore write about) every show that Broadway Across America brings to Indianapolis. Unfortunately, I made this resolution too late for me to see “Mama Mia!,” the first show in their 2009-2120 season, but I have marked my calendar for the rest.
This means that I will see professional productions of five hit Broadway musicals that I have never seen before, including “Chicago the Musical,” “The Color Purple: the Musical,” “The 101 Dalmatians Musical,” “A Chorus Line,” “Legally Blonde: the Musical,” and “Jersey Boys.”
Pardon me a moment while I gloat…
Okay, now I’m putting my service hat back on and realizing that since most of these shows will only be here for a few days, I may not be able to write about them in time for you to use my reviews to help you decide whether or not each show would be something you would like. I’ll just do the best I can and hope that even if an individual review comes too late, my series of reviews will give you useful information overall about this series of shows.
And Now About “Chicago”
Last Friday night I drove to the Murat Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see the opening night performance of the limited return engagement of “Chicago the Musical.” From the wealth(!) of information in my press kit I learned that:
With a book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, CHICAGO is the winner of six 1997 Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Cast Recording.
Directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking, CHICAGO features set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Ken Billington and sound design by Scott Lehrer. The production also features orchestrations by Ralph Burns, supervising music direction by Rob Fisher.
Produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, CHICAGO has become a worldwide phenomenon. The London production of CHICAGO continues to hold the record as the longest running American Musical in West End history.
It was a real treat here in Indianapolis, too.
Because I had never seen this show before, I can’t tell you how this production compares to others. I can tell you that it is sexy and funny – a truly enjoyable 2 ½ hours for adults. (There is one 15 minute intermission.) The show is not recommended for anyone under age 12, probably because a) it is a story about two women in the 1920s that killed their lovers and got away with it with the help of a sleazy lawyer, and b) it is about crime as show business, and c) did I mention the sexiness?
I can also tell you that if you have been anywhere near a high school show choir during the past 30 years, you will recognize the opening number, “All That Jazz.” However, I bet you have never seen it done this nakedly or by such talented dancers. These are some fit, attractive people doing gulp-worthy moves. Their energy is as high – and their surprising moves are as precise – at the end of the show as at the beginning.
The Stage Version Vs. The Movie
I can also tell you that the stage version is delightfully different from the 2002 Academy Award winning movie.
For one thing, the lead performers in this stage version have made the characters their own and are a pleasure to watch in their own right. More about them in a moment.
Another reason is that even on a large stage in front of an audience of more than 2000 people, “Chicago the Musical” feels intimate and therefore thrilling. I enjoyed the movie enough to buy a copy for myself on DVD, but the live, staged version is even more engaging because the performers are doing all of these beautiful, creative things right here and now, in front of you. It isn’t something that you’re experiencing through a buffer or through digital enhancements. It isn’t something that has been safely cut-and-pasted together out of a million tiny “takes.”
That is true of a lot of live theatre, of course. One reason that “Chicago” feels especially intimate, I think, is the deceptively simple set. The orchestra in its gold-framed, steeply tiered box takes up most of the stage so there is not a lot of room for any other set pieces except a few wooden chairs. At first glance, it looks as if all of the singing, dancing, and spoken interaction will take place just in the relatively small space just in front of the orchestra box.
But then people start popping up from within the orchestra box and interacting with the dozen or so orchestra members (who all sound fabulous, by the way.) Or they start hanging off of ladders at the sides of the stage. Or they drape themselves on chairs at the side of the orchestra box. Turns out, there are plenty of layers of artistic opportunity in this set after all, and each activation of a new layer feels like a tickle on a new place on my body, if that makes sense.
Also, the fact that the singer-dancers are interacting so much with the orchestra makes their interaction with us, the audience, feel more intimate by association.
Another reason this big, Broadway musical feels intimate is that even though there is a satisfying amount of theatrical razzle-dazzle (and not just in the song “Razzle Dazzle”) in the form of clever lighting, modern costumes, and other visual surprises, the special effects never upstage the talented performers.
Roxie, Velma, and Billy
In addition to talent, everyone in this show brings a wealth of fascinating experience with them – not only with “Chicago” but with other Broadway shows, films, and TV shows.
Bianca Maroqui’n is a tiny fireball in the role of Roxie Hart, the woman who has just been put in jail for killing her lover. Bianca makes you like Roxie, at least at first, in spite of her heartless self-centeredness. You feel sympathy for her because she has been disappointed by so many men and she is just so cute and sweet. She thinks fame equals love and therefore yearns for a career as vaudeville star. She is a quick study when it comes to getting and keeping attention at all cost.
Bianca has amazing flexibility and speed as a dancer, and a big, beautiful singing voice. These, combined with the complexity that she gives Roxie’s character, make hers a potent stage presence.
According to my press kit, Bianca originated the role of Roxie in the Mexico City production of “Chicago.” According to my Playbill, she has been starring in the Broadway national tour off and on since 2002.
Terra C. MacLeod is delightfully fierce and glamorous as Velma Kelly, Roxie’s rival in jail. Velma is a woman who had already achieved success as a vaudeville star in an act with her sister. She has been in jail for a while now for killing her husband and her sister when she found them in bed together.
Terra’s voice is beautiful, too. Her dancing is about long, elegant lines and confident sexuality…but also about comedy. I especially loved the combination of all three in her dancing with a chair as she explained what would happen “When Velma Takes the Stand.”
According to my Playbill, Terra originated the role of Velma “in the French productions of ‘Chicago’ in Montreal and Paris, Broadway and national tour of ‘Chicago’ and the 10 year anniversary Gala.”
Velma and Roxie compete for press attention and therefore the attention of their unscrupulous lawyer, Billy Flynn.
Tom Wopat plays Billy Flynn. He seemed a little tentative at first on Friday night, but then I realized that that was part of the character: Flynn assesses people and situations without giving away anything of himself. Then, once he has things figured out, he is in his eye-twinkling element as master puppeteer. I guffawed at his air of entitlement as dancing girls carrying huge feather fans arranged themselves around him in flattering patterns, even as he was singing that “All I Care About” is you, and love.
Tom had an easy-sleazy rapport with both the cast and the audience, sort of like…Dean Martin? That’s not quite right, but I can’t think who he reminded me of.
Maybe he reminded me of himself! My press kit says that:
Tom Wopat returns to the role of Billy Flynn after having played the part in both the Broadway and National Touring productions of “Chicago.” Other Broadway credits include “A Catered Affair” (Tom, Tony nomination) “Glengarry Glen Ross” (James Lingk), “42nd Street” (Julian Marsh), “Annie Get Your Gun” (Frank Butler, Tony nomination),” Guys and Dolls,”” City of Angels,” “ Carousel” and “I Love My Wife.” He is perhaps best known for his seven-season run on TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” and his role on the CBS sitcom “Cybill.”
Maybe I had seen him on TV!
Anyway, I enjoyed his singing, too, and wished I had read my Playbill in time to learn that a pre-release of his latest CD, “Consider It Swung” was available for purchase in the lobby.
Three Other Wonderful Stars
Carol Woods plays a sassy, calculating prison matron named Mama. My spine relaxed and my jaw dropped from the richness of her rendition of “When You’re Good to Mama.”
D. Micciche plays the refined “lady reporter,” Mary Sunshine. My press kit gives detailed background on how the current hit musical grew out of a real-life newspaper reporter’s stories about real-life “murderesses” in 1924. I wonder if the character of Mary Sunshine is loosely based on Maurine Dallas Watkins.
In any event, my own notes say “operatic” for Mary Sunshine’s hilarious yet lovely, warbly singing, and “handsome?” to describe her looks. I was FLABBERGASTED when she revealed herself to be a man in drag. What a hoot!
Tom Riis Farrell is endearing and brilliant as Amos, Roxie’s painfully self-effacing, cuckolded husband. His depiction made me wonder if there are any cuddly men in cardigans around me that I have overlooked. Roxie was disappointed in him as a lover, but I bet she never even tried to tell him or show him what she would like in bed.
Amos sings about feeling invisible in a funny yet moving song called “Cellophane.” Tom wears over-sized white gloves while he dances, and perfectly portrays, with subtle specificity, the struggle that takes place within a shy person who wants to be noticed and loved for himself but doesn’t really believe he deserves to be. Tom’s dead-pan comic timing is excellent. We feel sorry for Amos, but we also can relate to him without shame, if that makes sense.
In fact, I most want to give Tom a standing ovation because of the way he handled our resident honker at the end of his rendition of “Cellophane.”
By “our resident honker” I mean the woman with a very loud, very distinctive, honking laugh who attends most opening weekends at all professional theatres and many all-volunteer theatres in the Indianapolis area.
On Friday night, when Amos said, “My exit music please,” and the orchestra conductor supposedly didn’t hear him because Amos was as unremarkable as plastic wrap, most people chuckled at the joke, but this particular woman brayed long and loud, upstaging Tom and pulling everyone’s attention to her. Audience members either laughed or scowled (or jumped a mile, as I know from previous experiences of sitting near her) but they were no longer in the story.
Ironically, maybe her laugh is her own defense against feeling invisible and she doesn’t care how it affects other people as long as they notice her, which they definitely do. I’m not sure the woman can help the way she sounds but I am completely sure that she loves going to the theatre as much as I do. I also know what it’s like to feel invisible, so I can sympathize with wanting to keep doing what makes one feel visible, even if it ultimately alienates people.
So…I’m not bringing her up to be mean. I’m just saying: dealing with this woman’s jarring laugh is part of being in or at an opening weekend show in Indianapolis.
And Tom Riis Farrell handled it perfectly!
On Friday night, when Amos asked for his “exit music” and the Honking Woman did her thing, Tom not only didn’t let it distract him, he incorporated it. His facial expression seemed to say, “See? Now I am even invisible to this audience because you’re all paying attention to her instead of me.” He waited a beat or two but didn’t let her milk it. He went on, still in complete command of the scene.
Filled with admiration for him, I wondered if in every town on a Broadway tour there is someone in the audience who can’t or won’t control some behavior that forces everyone to pay attention to them for a moment instead of to the show. And if so, do Broadway touring performers therefore become especially adept at coping with them?
The Boys and Girls
I mentioned earlier that the dancing in this show is outstanding. Each of the dancers, I think, has a specific role and/or serves as “swing” or understudy. I’m just going to list them here, but I noticed and admired each of them many, many times during the show. The dancers include: Ashley Adamek, Shawn Beck-Gifford, Shamicka Benn, Cornelius Bethea, David Bushman, Christophe Cabellero, Daniel Gutierrez, Brent Heuser, Pilar Millhollen, Drew Nellessen, Adam Pellegrine, Lindsay Roginski, Kevin Steele, Melanie Waldron, Debra Walton, and Jesse Wildman.
I would also like to give a standing ovation to the ushers at the Murat. They cheerfully helped me find my correct seat (who knew there were three N1s on the first floor alone!) but what impressed the heck out of me was that during intermission there were ushers directing traffic up and down the stairs so that 2000 people could use the restrooms quickly and efficiently.
There was even an usher at the far end of the vast restroom itself calling out things like “There’s three open down here, ladies!”
Thanks to the Murat ushers, I had plenty of time to do what I needed to do and stretch my legs and think about buying a glass of something at the lobby bar. (I took the opportunity to write a tweet or two instead, but still: it was a pleasure to feel so relaxed during intermission.) A horn called everyone back to their seats for the second act.
Sign Language and Box Office Notes
Before the show on Friday night, while I was standing in line at Will Call, sign language interpreter Joyce Ellinger greeted me. I admire her work from seeing it at several Storytelling Arts of Indiana events. Joyce told me she was watching the show Friday night so that she could interpret it effectively for Deaf audience members at the final performance on Sunday. I had also hung out with her at the “Jersey Boys Sneak Peek Event” last month. She told me then that usually the last performance of every show in this series is interpreted.
Yesterday, Sunday, was the final performance of “Chicago” in Indianapolis, at least for this tour. However, I think you can still buy tickets for the next Broadway Across America show in Indianapolis, which will be “The Color Purple: the Musical.” It will be presented December 29, 2009 – January 3, 2010 at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus. For more information, please visit http://www.broadwayacrossamerica.com/indianapolis.
See you at the theatres!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com