I spent a good chunk of my weekend getting into the new Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, which follows the story of a woman from a privileged background who ends up in a federal women’s prison for trafficking drug money. It paints a pretty stark picture of the corrections system and looks about as far from a good time as I can imagine. On the extreme other hand, Saturday night I went to see Chicago, the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical, which plays for a handful of performances this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. The show follows two 1920s vaudeville showgirls who team up after meeting in prison for murder. But there are no orange jumpsuits here. This prison is punctuated by shimmering dresses, punchy songs, an empathetic and bribable warden, and one sexy, slimy lawyer. If I had to choose, I’d take the Chicago version of jail.
Chicago, directed by actress Brooke Shields, closely follows the Bob Fosse-inspired choreography and staging of the 1996 Broadway revival (and strongly echoes the Oscar-winning 2002 film directed by Rob Marshall) – and with good reason. Shields recruited original Chicago national tour dance captain Gregory Butler to choreograph, and she cast recognizable faces in the leading roles – including Ashlee Simpson, who reprises her turn as Roxie Hart from the 2006 West End production. In addition, much of the very strong supporting cast performed in the Broadway and national tour productions of Chicago. The stark black-and-white staging and black-clad, fedora-topped ensemble suit the outdoor setting of the Bowl and work well on the much-needed jumbo-trons, but lack the shimmery punch of red that Marshall’s film version ingrained in me. So there’s not much new here, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
Of the celebs gracing the stage, Samantha Barks (Les Misérables) shines as Velma, the brassy singer-slash-murderess. Her maturity in the complex role defies her young age (she’s only 23), and her big voice carries the show through the nearly 18,000-capacity amphitheater. Her counterpart is Simpson’s Roxie. There’s no lip-synching in this show, and Simpson’s gravelly, rootsy voice offers a good balance to Barks’. The main thing I miss from this pairing is the tap dancing. Maybe it just doesn’t work in such a large venue, but the duo’s culminating number – “Nowadays” – lacked that special something.
Lucy Lawless, yep, Xena herself, adds another powerful woman to her résumé in the role of Mama Morton. She just looks like she’s having a blast onstage and belts out “When You’re Good to Mama” with pizzazz. Drew Carey’s turn as “Mr. Cellophane” is less memorable, but perhaps on purpose – after all, that’s what his big song itself is about.
True Blood star Stephen Moyer plays a different kind of vampire in lawyer Billy Flynn, out for money and the love of the press. We knew he was charming, but who knew he could sing? Consider this the first request for a True Blood musical episode.
For its annual summer musical production, the Bowl consistently picks a smart show for its audience. Chicago joins Guys and Dolls, Hairspray, and Rent in the list of recent selections, and Shields’ show works as a razzle-dazzle summer romp in the best possible way. Sure, she could have taken a risk and costumed them in orange jumpsuits. But why mess with a good thing?