Chicago, Starring Samantha Barks, Ashlee Simpson and Stephen Moyer, Brings "All That Jazz" to the Hollywood Bowl

By Evan Henerson
25 Jul 2013

Lucy Lawless and Stephen Moyer
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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Stephen Moyer, Lucy Lawless, Ashlee Simpson, Samantha Barks and Drew Carey
Photo by Ed Krieger