With her husband wowing audiences in “Nine” just across the street at the Eugene O’Neill, Melanie Griffith’s Broadway debut as one of “Chicago’s” merry murderesses has garnered more attention than even the usual movie-star-to-stage transition. Would she make a happy splash, as Banderas undeniably has, or land in a belly flop? Rather ominously, the challenging role of Roxie Hart is not just Griffith’s first Broadway foray — it’s also the first stage performance for this gamine of ’90s cinema.
It would be a lie to suggest her inexperience doesn’t show. It certainly does when it comes to the musical and terpsichorean duties Griffith has to undertake. Her singing is tentative and wayward of pitch. The dancing is even shakier — sometimes literally so. Griffith has gorgeous gams but doesn’t have a clue what to do with them up there. (Some of the choreography seems to have evaporated, particularly from her title tune.)
But these undeniable weaknesses ultimately are overridden, at least for this veteran of at least a half-dozen “Chicago” casts, by Griffith’s fresh and thoroughly endearing take on the role. From the show’s opening moments, when Roxie looks on with a sullen, confused pout as her lover prepares to hightail it out of her unsatisfactory life, Griffith infuses her perf with a natural vulnerability that gives her Roxie a refreshing authenticity. The contours of the character fit Griffith’s screen persona like a lace glove: Inside this Roxie, a knowing woman playing the little girl lost, is a real little girl lost.
Griffith’s is certainly not the razzle-dazzle Roxie we’re accustomed to (and musical-theater aficionados may prefer). This isn’t a stylized presentation of a desperate character, a wannabe magically transformed into a show-stopper when the band strikes up. For Griffith’s Roxie, when the music starts, there’s still no escaping the limits of her back-alley life.
When things are going her way, this Roxie looks on in wondering excitement at the circus surrounding her, like a kid who’s snuck backstage. But even when she’s taking impish delight in getting the upper hand over her rival Velma, she seems to sense calamity is looming around the corner. The element of insecurity in Griffith’s performance becomes a part of the drama — Roxie’s showbiz dreams are exposed as hopeful delusions. In the show’s final moments, as she sings the opening lines of “Nowadays” — “It’s good, isn’t it, swell, isn’t it … ” — a thoroughly disillusioned Roxie breaks down in tears. The lyrics take on a pitiful kind of irony that’s new.
Griffith’s small-scaled, naturalistic approach to the role has integrity, but it is a bit at odds with the production’s highly theatrical approach. Her Roxie would be seen to better effect onscreen or in a less stylized production (the poignancy of Roxie’s “Nowadays” would work rather better if it wasn’t followed by her game but mushy hoofing in the “Hot Honey Rag,” for one thing).
She certainly seems to inhabit a different universe than the Velma Kelly of Deidre Goodwin, a Broadway veteran giving a glitzy, well-sung and -danced but somewhat bland performance. Brent Barrett, perhaps the sexiest, suavest and most vocally rich of the many Billy Flynns who have oozed their way through this revival, is in delicious form in a return engagement. Camille Saviola is a big-voiced Mama Morton, P.J. Benjamin an aptly wan Amos Hart. D. Sabella, the original Mary Sunshine in this production, continues to trill with aplomb.
The production itself, powered by the popularity of the recent movie and perhaps the presence of a big-time movie name, is drawing big audiences. And they don’t seem to mind Griffith’s lack of stage chops; the ditzy charm familiar from her movie roles has a fresh glitter onstage, and Griffith’s warmth and likability are undeniable. When Griffith’s Roxie sheepishly confessed, “The thing is, I’m older than I ever expected to be,” a woman in the row behind me sighed and called out, as if to an old friend, “Me, too.”