When a successful musical like Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” is made into a critically acclaimed and popular movie, it’s hard not to compare the two when the stage show is viewed after the film’s release. The 2002 movie, which won Best Picture, features a stellar cast including four principles who were nominated for Oscars, with Catherine Zeta-Jones taking home the trophy for her portrayal of Velma Kelly. The cast currently starring in the short run (April 26-May 1) at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood therefore had some big shoes to fill.
While the current North American tour of “Chicago” stems from the 1996 Broadway revival, which opened six years before the movie, audiences seeing the show post-2002 no doubt have strong mental images of Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the two stars of the show, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively. The show currently on tour features R&B star Brandy Norwood as Roxie and Broadway star Terra C. MacLeod as Velma. So how did they live up to their predecessors?
Let’s begin with Brandy. Norwood’s take on the character of Roxie Hart was definitely fresh and provided a different perspective from Zellweger’s portrayal or from any other Roxie that has been on stage for that matter. Her strong sitcom-style comedic timing livened up the role, especially in the famous “We Both Reached for the Gun” number where she plays a dummy on her lawyer’s lap. And as any 90s music lover could attest to, she has a skilled voice and can clearly sing live.
However, while her vocal style can no doubt keep a concert audience enthralled, it proved a bit weak during some points in the context of musical theater. It was sometimes hard to hear her over the loud (and very skilled) band, such as during her signature number “Roxie.” Similarly, Norwood gave the vocals a certain R&B style that she’s become known for. While those runs and key changes are happily gobbled up by listeners in songs like “What About Us?” and “The Boy Is Mine,” they seemed a little out of place on a musical theater stage. That being said, it was an interesting choice for the character of Roxie and definitely went far beyond a mere copycat version of Zellwegger’s performance.
MacLeod, on the other hand, has her roots in musical theater and had no trouble embracing the signature characteristics of the genre on this current tour. In fact, MacLeod has played the role of Velma numerous times in the past all around the world, including on Broadway. Her precision was sharp and on point, never missing a beat. Her vocals were strong, however, they seemed at times to lack the oomph put into the role by others who have played Velma. Audiences can feel Velma’s pain, anger, frustration and fearlessness when she belts out notes in “All That Jazz” or tells her story during the “Cell Block Tango.” MacLeod seemed to hold back at many points when she could have taken the moment one step further. After all, isn’t that what Velma would do?
The touring cast also made another nontraditional choice of casting former NFL star Eddie George in the role of Billy Flynn. While his transition from football to stage star may have only happened recently, he slid into the role with ease and gave a standout performance. Not only were his acting skills on point, but his vocals wowed the crowd at multiple points throughout the night. It is also important to mention that Roz Ryan’s portrayal of Matron “Mama” Morton was incredible and definitely rivaled Queen Latifah’s performance of the role in the film. This comes as no surprise for the Broadway veteran, who has not only appeared in seven different Broadway productions, but has also played more performances of “Chicago” than any other leading actress in the show’s historic 20-year run. Her voice, stage presence and comedic timing captivated the audience every time she was on stage.
Finally, the company itself, the group of dancers, singers and band members, were incredibly talented. Whether they shined in smaller roles such as those in the “Cell Block Tango” or seamlessly graced the stage with their tight choreography, the production would definitely not have been as enjoyable or entertaining without them.
The current national tour of “Chicago” may not be the most classic incarnation of the famous musical, but it definitely features a talented group of artists and offers a unique perspective of the show that at this point has become so ingrained in popular culture. The opening night audience, a group who was clearly fans of “Chicago,” seemed to enjoy themselves as their enthusiasm and energy was palpable throughout the theater. This may be a different take on the show that originally appeared on Broadway in 1975, but I suppose John Kander and Fred Ebb saw it coming: in fifty years or so, it definitely changed you know…but judging by the crowd last night, it was still grand, it was still great, it was still swell and it was still fun. And isn’t that still heaven nowadays?