The impossibly long legs, cropped hair, slinky black leotards and come-hither stares employed by those smoking hot dancers are pretty much a dead give-away. Even before a note is struck on the makeshift rehearsal piano in the gymnasium of a Hollywood church, it's clear this can only be a tune-up for Kander and Ebb's Chicago.
Having given out a smattering of hugs to cast members and snapped a few cell-phone picture keepsakes, director Brooke Shields stepped forward to welcome the media who have assembled for a sneak peek at what she, music director Rob Fisher and an all-star cast are building.
Building at breakneck speed, we should add. This is a lunch break on day five, exactly halfway through the rehearsal period for a three-performance weekend run, July 26-28, of Chicago at the Hollywood Bowl, the famed West Coast amphitheatre that can hold up to 18,000 people. And, yes, Shields is that Brooke Shields, erstwhile Ivory Snow Baby turned "Pretty Baby," star of "Suddenly Susan," a whole bunch of movies and — more recently — a collection of stage roles on Broadway (Cabaret, Wonderful Town, The Addams Family) and on the West Coast (the pre-Broadway versions of Leap of Faith and The Exorcist.)
Today she's the lady with the clipboard. "Some of what you'll see they learned yesterday and some of it they learned today," explained Shields, who is making her stage-directing debut with the Bowl Chicago. "So be kind."
And with that, Fisher fired up his piano and the aforementioned sultry dancers start writhing and Fosse-ing away to the first few verses of "All That Jazz." Leading the chorus, which has gathered into an inverted pyramid formation, is Samantha Barks, fresh off her turn as Eponine in the 2012 film "Les Miserables." Barks purrs her way through the teasing lyrics, her voice rising with each offer, "Start the car/I know a whoopee spot/where the gin is cold/But the piano's hot…"
|photo by Len Prince|
The number abruptly broke off and the dancers scattered to the "wings" to gather notebooks for part two of the taste test, the courtroom number "We Both Reached for the Gun." Playing unrepentant murderess Roxie Hart, Ashlee Simpson perched marionette-like on the lap of Stephen Moyer, bouncing, flopping and grinning as Moyer's slickster lawyer Billy Flynn dictated.
Simpson has been around the block a couple of times with Roxie, playing the celebrity-hungry assassin in both the West End and Broadway revivals of "Chicago." She has this double-Roxie duty in common with Shields, who also played the role in London and New York. Drew Carey, the Bowl's Amos Hart, has previous experience with "Bowl Broadway," having played Wilbur Turnblad in the 2011 staging of Hairspray.
Barks went through a get-it-up-quick cycle with the "24 Hour Plays" in Los Angeles and Moyer — a stage veteran of productions and tours in the United Kingdom — is returning to the boards after a self-imposed hiatus since starting up his six-season run on HBO's "True Blood" in 2008.
"With the show running seven months and then another six weeks of rehearsal and six week run, it always felt like too much to do to my kids," said Moyer, who has 10-month old twins with his wife Anna Paquin and two children from a previous relationship. "I've been offered things and said no up to this point. This felt like the perfect re-introduction."
|Photo by Ed Krieger|
The majority of the Chicago headliners — whose ranks include Lucy Lawless as Mama Morton — are all Fosse and Bowl neophytes. They characterized this quickie rehearsal process as "Chicagoland Bootcamp" and, to a person, confessed to being exhausted, terrified, giddy at the prospect of hitting the Bowl stage, and having the time of their lives. Barks listed the Rob Marshall-directed film version of Chicago as a favorite flick and said, as a musical theatre-loving teenager on the Isle of Man, she used to "dance around and do my one-woman version of the show." Neither she nor co-murderess Simpson seem especially daunted by the pace. "The first day of rehearsals, all of a sudden, the moves started coming back," added Simpson. "Maybe you'll find me back in New York after this. It does give me the itch."
Others, like Lawless, are getting into the swing of things as well. "I had a little breakthrough the other day," said Lawless. "It's very challenging to get in line with the original intention of Kander and Ebb and Bob Fosse to fit within the framework. This is a very faithful production, and so once you get yourself into their headspace and kind of the mathematics of it all, then you can begin to relax. This is a very experienced production team who insist that every word has a note. You don't elide. You don't smush with the rhythm. You don't try to pop."
Moyer, who confessed to being not the most skilled at learning his lines ("as my friends on 'True Blood' will tell you") took the unusual (for him) step of trying to learn the entire role before rehearsals started. Once he had settled into the rhythm of synching up speeches and gestures with accompanying bits of music or sound effect, Moyer said he could concentrate on Billy Flynn's ability to "make everybody in the room think he's talking directly to them."
"I think that's who Billy is," Moyer continued. "He's got that wheeler-dealer, P.T. Barnum-type razzmatazz that everybody thinks is just about them. So that's what I'm working on at the moment."
The seasoned tour guide through this landscape/minefield is Fisher who, as the founding music director and conductor of New York's Encores! series, is accustomed to working fast. Fisher has also been the supervising music director of Chicago productions around the world including the still-running 1996 Broadway revival. What's the key to mastering Chicago's musical styles? "I just talked to Mr. Kander yesterday, and I'm trying to think of what he would want me to say," replied Fisher. "There's a directness and simplicity that makes their music strong," he continued, "and sometimes with contemporary singers and performers, it's hard for them to understand that unadorned is stronger than riffed upon."
According to Fisher, the challenge of a truncated rehearsal process is less in learning the music than in recognizing that — since Chicago is a sung-through musical that is heavy on the hoofing — with only 10 days, you're not going to get much of an opportunity to repeat and master the steps.
The voices at his disposal, he said, have been a goldmine.
"Stephen Moyer has a great voice and it's just kind of unexpected since he's not shown it to the world in any kind of big way. Samantha Barks we know is a really good singer from 'Les Miserables.' She turns out to be a great singer with a lot of different capabilities to her voice. Those were kind of amazing to find. They could do a lot (in musical theatre) if that's what they chose to do."
It was Fisher who piloted Shields through two soprano numbers as the Baroness Elsa Von Schrader in a one-night concert version of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2012 and it was Fisher who recommended that Shields leave her comfort zone once again to take the reins of the Bowl's Chicago.
"When he asks me to do something, I basically say yes whether I'm terrified or not," said Shields. "You don't start at the Bowl, but he said, 'Listen, I've sat with you so many nights on the road in London and in New York where we've poured over this show and talked about what's missing, what we love about the original.' I had to audition for and dance with Annie (Reinking) and that made my life. Rob said, 'You know you are as intimately connected to this as we are. You've got the support. Why not give your voice to it?'" She has, although the assignment has tasked every bit of her preparation and organizational skills.
"They asked me to choreograph something yesterday," she said, "and I nearly passed out. I nearly fell out of my chair."
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