Did you get that calendar Chicago produced for 1999? As you pass each of the month's pages, you're reminded of all the foreign productions that have sprouted. For while Misses February, June, and October feature American casts, Misses January, May and November sport the London editions. July through September show Australian ladies, while April and December displays what the Netherlands has to offer.
The calendar gives rise to a question. How are those foreign productions of Chicago? Could they be any good? Memories of Michael Bennett's deciding that a British cast couldn't effectively perform A Chorus Line came to mind.
But that was decades ago. What could a current European cast do?
Off to the Netherlands, by air to Amsterdam, by rail to Utrecht, where Joop Van Den Ende, the impresario who gave us that Cyrano some years back, opened Chicago on May 9. Only steps away from the train station was the Beatrix Theater, ensconced in a new eight-story building. Above the entrance is a sign that covers six stories, with the five ladies and Billy Flynn glaring down at us: Chicago: De Andere Musical ("A Different Musical.")
Tickets cost 100, 90, and 80 guilders, which means a bit less than $50, $45, and $40. I asked for the best possible seat on a Saturday night, and was then asked for 100.50 guilders. Hey, the place is brand-new, so the extra 50 can't be a theatre restoration charge. Anyway, it was a bargain, and not just compared to Broadway prices. They want 132.50 for an upcoming Julio Iglesias concert, and 177.50 for a David Copperfield magic show. The lobby has red carpeted stairs, and black floor tiles -- a nice color scheme to complement the show's logo. Next to the box-office is the All That Jazz restaurant that opened the same day as the show, and the Millennium Cafe, ablaze with pictures of Joop's productions of Charity, West Side Story, Anatevka, et al. Here I perused Chicago's Playbill-sized, 84-page souvenir program for what essentially cost $3.25. Worth it. Heavy glossy paper yielded many pictures that showed they got the look of it right.
Inside the Beatrix, 32 rows steeply rise, which simply makes the "mezzanine" from Row 21 on. Given that I was in Row 21, after the break, I don't know why my ticket cost so much. Maybe it's because the red seats are so comfortable. They bulge out slightly to support pesky lower backs. It couldn't be because of the decor, for there are no loges, but simply stark mahogany walls.
I then spent two-and-a-half heavenly hours at a photocopy production that is a nice sister to what's on 44th Street. Yes, musical theatre talent is definitely well-represented in Europe, and the cast had no trouble perfectly replicating the Fosse style. If any American theatregoer saw a silent movie of the show that had been filmed from a row where he couldn't lip-read that the cast wasn't performing in English, he'd swear he was seeing the Broadway production.
Simone Kleinsma's Roxie trilled a bit in "Knuffelbertje" ("Funny Honey"), perhaps in a nod to operetta tradition. If she got a bit rarefied there, she made a spectacular recovery when she growled her "I can't stand that sap" line. Then, during her title song, where she stretched her fingers with sensuality, and it was time for her boys to state her name, she roared "Sing it!" with the self-resolve of Pseudolus.
Velma was Pia Douwes, who must be a bigger star than Kleinsma, because she gets top-billing (which even Neuwirth couldn't snag after Reinking left). Douwes earned it, though. Though she could do incredibly high kicks, this Velma could take a stand. She shared "Mijn Beste Vriend" with Kleinsma, though, leaving Liza Minnelli's record intact as the only Roxie who felt that she could do it alone. But then Douwes stole the act by singing a good dozen notes more than we're used to on the last "Jazz" note that ends the first act.
Tony Neef's Billy was too boyish, but that he was a recent replacement made me wonder if they're not too careful over there with successive casts. (It has happened here.) Marjolijn Touw was a surprisingly trim Mama Morton, but a fine one. P. Rombout's Mary Sunshine laid on a few too many fluttery gestures in "Er Schuilt Iets Goed in Leder Mens" but was the most convincing I've ever seen portraying a woman. So much so, that when the audience learned in the second act that "things are not always as they seem to be," many theatregoers were genuinely surprised.
But Sergi-Henri Valcke was the performer who ultimately received the most applause. That's right: Amos. When he loped on to do "Cellofaan," he'd already made such an impression on the audience that they immediately started both laughing and commiserating with him and his predicament. Valcke didn't start the song but proved smart enough to wait out the chuckles, thus making the laughs linger longer and louder by just standing there. Finally, when he began his tale of woe, he even managed to get a laugh on the hoary old joke about his parents relocating and not telling him where they went. And, in what was the evening's ultimate ironic comment, Amos' exit got a bigger hand than Billy's had.
The Saturday night audience loved it all. "The Tralie Tango." "Ik En Mijn Baby." "Roxie" and "Honey Rag," whose titles went untranslated. They cooed when Billy's head suddenly emerging from the ostrich feathers. They roared at Roxie's "Are you kidding?" in "Ze Grepen Naar Het Pistol," and enjoyed every nuance of the courtroom scene. In short, they loved all the things we love here. Once again I saw that music is the universal language, and dance the universal sign language.
But the biggest reaction went to the orchestra, with whom the audience officially fell in love during the entr'acte, when the trombonist and trumpeter took off on "Cellofaan." The crowd has such respect for the band that, during the out music, it didn't leave but remained standing in place (after having just given the show a standing ovation). I guess I can't speak for the 11 rows behind me, but I can sure tell you that not a single person in Rows A-T moved until the last note of the out music was out.
Though the show was in Dutch, some English words were retained. Alvin Lipschitz, Al Capelli, Uncle Sam, and characters remained. Sophie Tucker's predicted defecation when she heard surprising news, however, was instead attributed to Marlene Dietrich.
English, too, was the language for all locations, from Cicero to Cook County to Salt Lake City. But dropped, of course, was Velma (and Veronica's) joke about Chicago's being in the state of Ill.
Every now and then, another English word would sneak through: Five, six, seven, eight, jazz, pop, journalist, show-biz, boys, Three Musketeers, okay -- and Velma's four-letter response to Roxie's announcing to the press that she's with child. "Razzle-Dazzle" was renamed "Hocus-Pocus," and the Lord's name was not taken in vain during "Stijl" -- "Class."
On my way back to the train station, I stopped at a disc store and bought the cast album for a little less $21. If that sounds high, be apprised that it's a two disc set that was recorded live. It's not the entire show, but it does offer a generous deal of dialogue. What an irony that the most complete album of Chicago isn't in our language!
But that's my only complaint about Broadway abroad. The Chicago 2000 calendar must include Utrecht for a month or two or more.
Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com