One of the great ironies of contemporary Broadway is that the show that has become rather synonymous with the most shameless of celebrity stunt casting in recent years, the 20-years-old-and-counting revival production of Chicago, is just about the least friendly vehicle to untested, novice stage talent. Even the most seasoned a musical theater performer would find the demands of this piece daunting, for director Walter Bobbie's minimalist staging concept leaves nothing to for anyone's shortcomings to hide behind, both literally and figuratively. With skimpy costumes in basic black and considerable see-through sheer, and the set consisting of no more than one large box housing the orchestra, two fixed ladders, and varying numbers of chairs, anyone who dares to attempt to tackle any of the principal roles will find their basic stage presence and personal charisma put through their most rigorous test, never mind the singing skills required to nimbly navigate John Kander and Fred Ebb's jazzy tunes and--most especially--the considerable mind-body coordination and control essential to doing any sort of justice to Bob Fosse-by-way-of-Ann-Reinking's famously idiosyncratic, deceptively simple-looking, sharply precise choreography.
When Brandy Norwood's casting in the lead role of adulterous murderess-turned-media sensation Roxie Hart was announced by the Broadway company last year, she appeared to be just the latest pop music star to make their Great White Way debut in the show. This was no knock on her vocal prowess, which has long been proven by her decades-long, Grammy-winning recording career dating back to her teen years; and while she was a fan and judge favorite during her stint on Dancing with the Stars a few years ago, that was no clear indication of her readiness to tackle some of the most iconic movement ever created for any stage. But her turn created an ecstatic buzz for the live show that it hadn't enjoyed in many years, and her limited two-month engagement extended to almost double that after rave notices from media and audiences alike. Now bringing that celebrated performance to the west coast and the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for a limited one-week only run until Sunday, May 1, it's clear why the still fun but overly familiar show was suddenly invigorated: her performance is nothing short of the bright, blaring announcement of a natural and bonafide stage star.
Fosse purists may balk that like many celebrity Roxies before her, Norwood foregoes the climactic cartwheel that caps off the famously exhilarating dance duet finale, "Hot Honey Rag." But that's the only fault one could find, and a nitpick as she very impressively nails just about every other aspect of the character, dance included. While she may not be the technically precise hoofer that her co-star, stage vet Terra C. MacLeod as Roxie's jailhouse archrival-in-infamy Velma Kelly, is, certainly she matched her work ethic in the rehearsal room, for Norwood's dancing is not only excellent for a celebrity Roxie, but a Roxie, period. Shimmying into Fosse and Reinking's slinky shoulder rolls, arm slithers, hip sways, and knee pivots with an unusual control and finesse for a neophyte, whatever little inexperienced imperfections she might stumble into are more than smoothed over by her infectious confidence and swagger.
And those latter qualities are essential to the character, and Norwood creates a very clear character arc through out the show as her initial naivete about scandal-driven pseudo-celebrity culture gradually evolves into a more cunning vanity. But making her interpretation a bit more unique is that the trademark sweetness that has made Norwood such an enduringly likable performer adds a certain new depth: while Roxie does some despicably selfish things, one gets the sense that she is simply an average, bored, lonely housewife who is seduced and swept away by something she never can control or ever understand. While, to paraphrase one of the show's classic tunes, she had it coming as far as her eventual comeuppance, there is a genuine pathos to Norwood's take of Roxie's 11th hour lament "Nowadays."
Of course, helping that are Norwood's platinum-selling pipes, which are in strong form here and breathe new life to Kander and Ebb's score. While a consistent and justly famous set of tunes, Chicago has always in conception highlighted its star's dance ability and comic skills over vocal prowess, which ranks a distinct third. Having a true vocalist play Roxie really makes those memorable melodies shine, and as she's shown throughout her recording career, Norwood doesn't overdo the melisma like many of her R&B brethren, deploying elastic runs only when appropriate and for maximum effect. Hearing her and MacLeod sing together is an even greater delight, bringing some stunning new harmonies to, and in the process virtually reinventing, Roxie and Velma's duets.
And the whole show would not work were it not for MacLeod and the rest of the cast, who make the most of the many built-in moments to shine just as brightly as Norwood. The other celebrity casting move in this production is former NFL star Eddie George as Roxie and Velma's slimy lawyer Billy Flynn, and he quickly overcomes the obvious initial opening night jitters in his introduction number "All I Care About" by hitting his wicked comic groove--and unleashing a powerfully smooth, belty croon--on the always showstopping "We Both Reached for the Gun." Roz Ryan is the actress who has logged the most performances as prison matron Mama Morton in Chicago history, and her comfort and ease in the role shows in her soulful vocals and crack timing. Finally, appropriately so, there's Paul C. Vogt, who brings real heart to the show's tragic figure, Roxie's hapless cuckold of a husband, Amos.
So regardless of how many times one has seen the show or the 2002 film adaptation, this production of Chicago is a most worthy one--and perhaps will go down as a benchmark in stage history should Norwood go on to have a prolific and illustrious musical theater she shows is truly hers for the taking.