L.A. Legit Review: ‘Chicago’ at the Hollywood Bowl

Samantha Barks in Chicago
Mathew Imaging

The Kander and Ebb musical's Tinseltown staging looks and sounds great but lacks guts

If you’re going to make your directing debut under a harsh industry spotlight with minimal rehearsal time, it’s smart to appropriate a world-famous production’s concept and numerous veterans of same. For the Hollywood Bowl’s annual showcase tuner, Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking’s Tony-honored, starkly black-and-white reimagining of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” does well for, and by, tyro helmer Brooke Shields. The play’s not played with much guts, but it looks and sounds grand for a most enjoyable al fresco evening.

At first it’s mildly dismaying to encounter Joe Celli’s set, the familiar old black box with red trim resembling nothing so much as an upscale steakhouse. Yet the decor proves a fine choice for the arena as clothes, action and tabloid headlines pop out even to the back rows. And when visual razzle-dazzle is needed for the “Razzle Dazzle” number, the venue’s resources provide. The impossibly triple-jointed Fosse-style choreography — originally recreated by Reinking, here marshaled skillfully by Gregory Butler — also stands out clearly, requiring less reliance on the ubiquitous Jumbotron views than usual.

You’ll value the big screens, though, when best-in-show Samantha Barks struts her stuff. In a socko transformation from delicate Eponine in 2012’s “Les Miserables” pic to hard-boiled felon Velma Kelly, the petite Brit is revealed as a true Broadway-style pepper pot with plangent voice and irresistible grin. Easily 20 years too young for the role, Banks simply ignores the age thing with an authentically hard-as-nails manner. Better still, she commits to total belief in what’s at stake as Velma awaits judgment: This songstress never forgets there could be a noose in her future.

The tuner’s main jazz baby and accused lover-killer is something else again. If Ashlee Simpson possessed a sense of her life hanging in the balance when she assayed Roxie Hart in Gotham and London, it’s gone now, replaced by mugging. She whispers her way through the songs, her aim better when plugging boyfriend Fred Casely than when hitting the high notes. Still, she’s game, moves well and is clearly an audience favorite.

Assorted TV names also skate the surface. Stephen Moyer of “True Blood” is all toothy tux as lawyer Billy Flynn; Lucy Lawless is a blank slate as Matron Mama Morton. A lack of underlying menace in both portrayals robs the evening of needed grit, just as Drew Carey fails to unearth the deep sadness within Roxie’s hapless “Mr. Cellophane” hubby.

But if Shields has to take a rap for such superficial playing, she earns kudos for her handling of the ensemble, who prowl hungrily around the action to invest punchlines, caricatures and carny shtick with unflagging relish. Carrying through original helmer Bobbie’s use of the chorus as side commentators, Shields must deal with almost double the stage expanse but pulls off the living environment with utter lack of strain.

In the end you go to “Chicago” not for the critique of American justice or psychological depth but for the peerless Kander and Ebb score, and that element is sensationally served by musical director Rob Fisher and orchestra. Thanks to Philip G. Allen’s sound design every scabrous, witty Ebb lyric comes across, and thanks to the command Fisher’s earned in almost two decades at the “Chicago” baton, the air rings out with an evocative 1920s sound, vocal razzle-dazzle and all that jazz.

L.A. Legit Review: 'Chicago' at the Hollywood Bowl

Hollywood Bowl; 17,376 seats; $290 top. Opened, reviewed July 26, 2013. Runs through July 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, based on the play “Chicago” by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Ebb.

Creative

Directed by Brooke Shields. Musical director and conductor, Rob Fisher. Choreographed by Gregory Butler. Sets, Joe Celli; costume supervisor, Thomas G. Marquez; lighting, Tom Ruzika; production stage manager, Meredith J. Greenburg.

Cast

Samantha Barks, Drew Carey, Lucy Lawless, Stephen Moyer, Ashlee Simpson, D. Tabiak.

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  1. Dora Balladares says:

    This was a great show, Samantha Barks was superb even after the show. Being in L A for my grandson’s periodic medical visits we were lucky to check out this musical especially to see Ashlee Simpson who is also from Texas. What a disappointment! We waited along with many other fans for Ashlee to come out to greet her fans and she did a good job of evading her waiting fans! My grandson was so excited to get a pic of her just to see his disappointment in his face really saddened me. She definitely needs to learn from Samantha Barks who wrote autographs for her fans and made the time to take pictures with them. You go girl!! Wish you lots of success from your fans in Austin, Texas.

  2. R Clark says:

    I was amazed at how polished this production was considering they only have THREE performances! NO Broadway show, or regional theatre would dare do a musical of this scale without previews! This company pulled it off brilliantly. I did think Simpson was mugging a bit, but it was a move the audience loved, and in that big a space, maybe not a bad choice… she clearly has the talent, so I think it was a decision more than lack of skill. I still enjoyed her, and my friends loved her. The other leads were top notch, and the chorus was out of this world flawless – moved and sounded as good as anything on Broadway. Choreography was brilliant. Vocals and orchestra amazing. Brooke Shields should be proud… quite an accomplishment considering the parameters. A wonderful evening. Wish I could see it again.

    I agree with these comments more than this critic’s review. I think the only use of critic’s reviews anymore is to read the comments that other audience members had to say.

    • Matt Cohen says:

      Overall an enjoyable if unspectacular night’s entertainment for me and my party. Good fun but no surprises or ‘wow’ factor.

      In the pre-interviews all the cast lauded their director – a typical biz love-in. But I wonder if Ms. Shields was TOO much of an actors’ director – giving praise and hugs when tough love would have been kinder, more productive and brought more out of everyone.

      Samantha Barks did shine, as everyone’s pointing out. If she can snag the right parts – girl’s got a real future. Ashlee Simpson…was okay… She did ‘mug’ but again – whilst she might have made what seemed like a legitimate choice to up the ante for the venue, a more discerning team around her would have reassured her she didn’t need to.

      As another reviewer pointed out – Billy Flynn should be smarmy and inveigling. And whilst the musical’s got more edge than most, if the actor had tried to pull off menacing on that big a stage – he’d have had to tip into serious arch. Moyer’s interpretation felt conscious and right and he could easily slip into any Broadway production.

      Drew was bland. Can’t remember much about him.

      Lucy Lawless was a bit of a disappointment. I normally think she’s great – lots of presence and often under-estimated as the fine actress she really is. But it seemed as if she was trying too hard to play it glam/femme/generic – maybe to get away from her lesbian icon stereotype? Trouble is, any mature interpretation of Mama implies at the very least some sexual ambiguity. And what tonight showed is if you take that strength and dash of masculinity away from Lucy Lawless…it’s a bit like cutting Samson’s hair off. She loses her unique charisma. Plus her voice needs work on tone. Being on the stage with seasoned singers slightly exposed her. She was game, but fell a little short. I heard other people express similar views as we were leaving. Shame. We should see more of her in roles that give her genuine talent chance to shine. Just not this.

      The ensemble were great. They worked their proverbials off and elevated the whole production. Kudos to them. Choreography and staging rose to the occasion and the musical team did a grand job.

      All in all, a success but one that with a bit more imagination and courage could have been a stormer.

  3. Lori Alder says:

    Loved this production! I thought Ashley Simpson evoked the original Gwen Verdon Roxy (albeit much younger). She was a much more brassy version than the movie’s too cute Renee Zellweger.
    Thought Samantha Banks was terrific but her dancing was mediocre and obviously the choreography for her numbers was watered down to match her ability. Agree about Drew Carey and Lucy Lawless, they were weak. But Moyer was outstanding!!
    All in all though, it was a fun production and thoroughly enjoyable.

  4. Cc Compton says:

    Stephen Moyer as always was amazing as he is in everything, he is a born performer be it on stage or on screen and rocked it in the role of Billy Flynn, a character in no way menacing but sneaky and cheekily smarmy but in no way menacing. Stephen Moyer is an actor of many talents and has proved this once again and has shared with the world what an amazing voice he has.

  5. Sarah says:

    TV names! Oh my goodness, surely not!

    Oh wait though – didn’t Stephen Moyer start his career in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company?

  6. S Compton says:

    Never saw the role of Billy Flynn as menacing… always saw it as a charmingly smarmy and under handed type, having said that, Moyer’s performance did the role justice in my opinion and was more than impressed with his singing.
    Not sure what performance you saw but thought the whole cast did a creditable job and so did the rest of the audience.

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