PLAYBILL.COM AT CHICAGO'S 10TH ANNIVERSARY: Toppin' That Toddlin' Town

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15 Nov 2006

Properly flanked by a pair of flashy showgirls, John Kander took to the stage of the Ambassador Theatre Nov. 14 where his show Chicago rounded off its first full decade of consecutive performances on Broadway and invoked the words of his lyricist partner, the late Fred Ebb: "You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery — all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts."

Not that the motion, these days, needs to be seconded, but the sound of a familiar Circe fills the house. "Come on, Babe, why don't we paint the town? And all that jazz." An original-cast sound almost, you're thinking — and yes! it is. The original Velma Kelly is back in town — indestructible, loose of limb, sexy Chita Rivera from Bob Fosse's 1975 Broadway show, strutting her stuff, having and giving a great time. It doesn't get better.

Ah, the good old days of today. The nostalgia musical of now. The new now and forever musical. Or, as Liz Smith so eloquently put it, and, as The Weisslers (producers Barry and Fran) so wisely repeated it — emblazoned in black and red on the Ambassador marquee — "Still The Best Damn Show in Town." You'd get no argument from the tuxedo set attending this spectacularly star-stuffed 10th anniversary performance which netted a whopping $1.2 million for Safe Horizon, the nation's leading victim assistance group.

The show was Ute-less and Usher-less and without the greatest Roxie Hart since the Gwen Verdon original (wait for it, it shall be revealed), but the tsunami of talent that swept across the stage was truly staggering, a musical tag-team-match where just about anybody who'd done a bump and grind in Chicago got A Moment and you'd better believe made the most of it! Definitely!

Working from Fosse's original 1975 blueprints, Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking (respectively the revival's Tony-winning director and choreographer) resisted the DeMillian impulses of the occasion but, just to be on the safe side, set an invited dress rehearsal at 1:30 PM the day of. Antonio Banderas, Jane Krakowski, lyricist-director David Zippel and Christine Ebersole were among those who got the first look-see.



Afterward, before they had a chance to take a proper breather for The Main Event, the participants took to the red carpet, entering a kind of "Twilight Zone" about 4:30 where they were photographed and interviewed about a performance they were about to give.

The procession included Michelle DeJean (the Roxie through Dec. 30), Wayne Brady, Lynda Carter, Hinton Battle, Sharon Lawrence, PJ Benjamin, Ron Raines, Ron Orbach, Chuck Cooper, Kevin Richardson, Gregory Harrison, Bianca Marroquin, Eric Jordan Young, Tom Wopat, Gerry McIntire, Terry C. MacLeod, among others.

Then, the real arrivals began arriving, using (little did they know) a well-trod red carpet: B.D. Wong, Barbara Walters, Sam Cohen, Linda Fairstein, Malaak Compton Rock, Stephanie March, Lesley Stahl, et al. The show started way beyond the announced 6:30.

The evening sailed by without a glitch — well, there was one glitch: A scroller (a lighting apparatus) went berserk in one number and broke into a crescendoing clang clang clang.

It wasn't even "The Trolley Song." Director Bobbie finally had to go down to the lip of the stage and stop the show and send Melanie Griffith back to the top of Roxie's life story again. A game girl (and a filmic one), she ad-libbed "Take 2" and got a nice laugh.

I'm not one to cast aspersions, but methinks it was a Grinch glitch. One of Griffith's Roxie rivals is Paige Davis. Married name: Paige Page. Her husband is Patrick Page, who has the title role at the Hilton Theatre in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and he had a window of opportunity from his 12-performance-a-week sked.

How the roles were sliced and diced and divvied up remained a mystery to actors and audiences alike, but a discerning mind was definitely involved. Splendid use was made of Brooke Shields and Brent Barrett in the ventriloquist scene where Roxie lets her shyster mouthpiece, Billy Flynn, do the talking for her ("We Both Reached for the Gun").

Marilu Henner and Rita Wilson split "Funny Honey" on ladders on opposite sides of the stage. Karen Ziemba was tapped to deliver the news of Roxie's very false pregnancy, and Ruthie Henshall to deliver the Expletive Deleted for the act one finale, "My Own Best Friend." The original Chicago ensemble (Jim Borstelman, Caitlin Carter, Mindy Cooper, Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Denis Jones, Mary Ann Lamb, Rocker Verastique and Leigh Zimmerman) hoisted the Act Two curtain with an extended "Entr'acte."

Naturally, and quite rightly, the original principals got the choice pickings. I mean, would you want to see anybody else but Joel Grey do "Mister Cellophane," about Roxie's forgotten man — her husband? James Naughton, the Tony-winning Billy Flynn, glided on with his introduction number, "All I Care About," in a flurry of feathers and attentive showgirls. Marcia Lewis [now Bryan], a nominated Matron "Mama" Morton, now happily retired to Nashville housewifery, delivered her fabulous brass-knuckles "Class." And, for a fitting finale, Bobbie came on stage himself and introduced the last Roxie and Velma: Tony-nominated Reinking and Tony-winning Bebe Neuwirth. (It's interesting to note: Reinking was the last Roxie in the original Fosse show and the first Roxie in the revival.)

"When You're Good to Mama" brought out the best in two mo' Mama Mortons, Carol Woods and Broadway's current Roz Ryan. It was not uncommon for several actors as the same characters to converge on stage at the same time in the same song— kind of a creative collision. D. Sabella, R. Bean and the current R. Lowe had a falsetto free-for-all over Mary Sunshine's "A Little Bit of Good." Caroline O'Connor did some hilarious over-the-moon mugging (a good thing, in this case) for "When Velma Takes the Stand."

For Velma's desperate tapping-as-fast-as-I-can audition to Roxie, an albino bundle of South African energy named Amra-Faye Wright really knocked herself out doing "I Can't Do It Alone" — and she seems to have gotten the role, replacing Brenda Braxton as Velma on Nov. 20. Braxton is spending the day after the anniversary show — her day Off — opening an all-male grooming salon at Fifth Avenue and 116th St. called B. Braxton.

Also entering the show Nov. 20 — re-entering it, actually — is Huey Lewis, replacing Christopher McDonald as Billy Flynn. He was heard grousing later that the bit he drew — dancing — didn't show off his talents enough, but he seriously underestimates the charm he displays in faking it. One won-over and convinced customer was the gentlemen sitting in front of me — movie director Sydney Pollack. If they ever make a musical comedy of Pollock's life, Pollock has to be played by Lewis. The resemblance is eerie.

James L. Nederlander, sitting next to me, was among those wowed by Charlotte d'Amboise's "Me and My Baby." She was sprung from her nightly duties as Cassie in A Chorus Line to do it — a shrewd move, although Michael Berresse (the original Fred Casely who was so completely ventilated by Roxie's revolver in the opening scene) had to stay in place in A Chorus Line. "They don't like Zach and Cassie to be out on the same night," he told me later at the after-party at New World Stages where he visited with old friends from the original company. Deidre Goodwin, who has a strong Chicago history, too, couldn't get permission to leave her "Sheila" role in A Chorus Line.

At show's end, The Weisslers thoroughly thanked all hands connected with the show, before the footlights and behind — in some cases, far behind. He said Chicago had been performed in 20 countries and 15 languages (plus English) and before 19 million people.

She ended with: "Probably, except for giving birth, it's the most exciting day of my life."

He was in a no less a jubilant mood as well. "Fran and I are just floating. We've had hits before but nothing like this. This is what Cameron Mackintosh must feel all the time."

The lone survivor of the triumphant triumvirate who created Chicago was hard-pressed to explain its slow-to-show success — indeed, Kander & Ebb's biggest hit. "Isn't it weird? Who would have thought it?" said the disbelieving Kander. "In 1975, we didn't do so well [936 performances — two years and two months ain't bad, but it isn't, granted, 10 years]. A lot of people have theories about why it works now. Some say the public has grown more cynical, but in 1975 we'd just come off Watergate, so I don't think that's it.

"I'm just terribly, terribly grateful. And I think that Rob Marshall's movie didn't hurt it, either. He did a great job translating it to the screen." (It was 2002's big Oscar winner.)

The next Kander & Ebb bowing on Broadway is also a murder musical — albeit, not as severe a body count as Chicago —called Curtains, which got a sell-out try-out at L.A.'s Ahmanson and just landed a theatre in New York (the Al Hirschfeld for March 22, 2007; previews start Feb. 27). "It goes into rehearsal Jan. 24," Kander was delighted to report.

After that, there's All About Us, their musical version of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, opening April 20 at the Westport Playhouse. And The Visit, which they did with Terrence McNally, starring Chita Rivera, looks likely for Broadway next season.

 

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Bobbie, who rocked the boat in the last Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, surpassed that show's long-running record with his Chicago. He thought of reviving it while lining up his "Encores!" season at the same time he watched the O. J. Simpson trial. Eureka! "Some days you get up, and you have a good idea."

The anniversary evening clearly moved him: "There are so many things. I can't separate the feelings that are passing through my soul and my heart, but the one I feel consistently is gratitude. I just feel so blessed to have been entrusted with this piece of material."

"It's an extraordinary experience to be part of this," said silver-foxy John O'Hurley, who gorgeously addressed the jury in Roxie's behalf. "I was part of 'Seinfeld.' I thought that was the greatest experience, but it's nice to be part of something that has always been of such an important tradition, and that is the Broadway theatre — to be able to walk across the stage as Billy Flynn and wear the tux for a while was one of the great joys of my life."

Although Kevin Chamberlin (Seussical, Dirty Blonde) finished his stint as Amos Hart (a.k.a. "Mister Cellophane") in September and is already into an NBC series called "Heroes" in L.A., he made himself visible again and was glad to be a part of it. "It was an amazing evening, wasn't it? To see that many generations of actors from Ashlee Simpson to Chita Rivera."

Terry Witter and Mindy Farbrother, who have stage-managed Chicago all 10 years, consider the blizzard of 2000 their own personal war story. "None of the Amoses could make it in because of the snow," Terry recalled rather vividly, "and, of course, we were sold out because there were all these people stuck in hotels who needed something to do. We were on the phone literally up until 7:30 trying to get an Amos. Finally, I faxed the pages over to this guy who hadn't done the show in about two years, and he rushed over to the Shubert, not knowing we'd moved to the Ambassador. But he got there. We were running short four ensemble people, but we had swings on covering for other people. We went up about 20 after eight — but the show went on, and it was the only show running that night."

The Brothers Sabella, David and Ernie, were present and accounted for. David was in the original cast as the cross-dressing and not-so-little Mary Sunshine, the sob-sister journalist, and Ernie eventually grew into the Amos role. On the night of the revival's opening, Ernie said his kid brother always knew that was the role for him, and 10 years later David confirmed it: "From the moment that I knew about this show and this role — and realized that Mary Sunshine was played by a man — from that moment on, I said, 'OhmyGod, I gotta have that role.' Seven years, I prayed. Every time I would pray — which is not to say very often, but anytime I prayed, I would end my prayer with, 'And please, God, let someone revive Chicago.' It took seven years of prayer, but it really happened."

Oh! And, of course,the greatest Roxie since Gwen Verdon — the closest to her white-trash charm and comic vulnerability and fantastic dancing skills — was, and is, Sandy Duncan.