Yes, folks, she does the final cartwheel. That’s an initial tribute due Brooke Shields, the 16th and latest Roxie Hart in London’s “Chicago,” which celebrates its eighth West End birthday in November. Why focus on Shields when most of her 15 predecessors have been ignored by the press? Easy: There’s scarcely been a more tantalizing choice of performer to play a 1920s Chicago murderess hungry for the spotlight than the New York actress-model-personality, recently turned 40, who has been on public view since posing for Ivory Soap at age 11 months.
In recent years, Shields has, of course, somewhat reinvented herself as a Broadway replacement queen who has been getting increasingly good reviews (most recently as Donna Murphy’s successor in “Wonderful Town”). As Roxie, she’s a game, good-time gal who achieves a ready and genuine rapport with the audience. Indeed, Shields’ only problem may be that she’s trying a tiny bit too hard.
On the other hand, a media phenomenon not exactly known for her dancing clearly has worked hard to deliver the signature moves of choreographer Ann Reinking, Bob Fosse’s latter-day muse.
Besides that “Hot Honey Rag” cartwheel (something more notable forbears in this role have omitted), she makes a particularly nimble and floppy puppet on “We Both Reached for the Gun” — a number that doesn’t need the squeaky voice and exaggerated gestures Shields adds to it. It may be Shields is too smart to inhabit from within “some dumb common criminal,” as Roxie in act two is described.
But she interacts nicely with Clarke Peters’ sturdy Billy Flynn and the breathy Velma Kelly of Charley Izabella King, whose vocal timbre marks her out as a more natural Roxie than the statuesque, vaguely mannish Shields.
The comic flair this visiting American reportedly brought to “Wonderful Town” applies here, as well, those famously thick eyebrows reaching parts of the house even her singing at its most confident (which it mostly is) does not. Proclaiming that “fooling around is screwing around without dinner,” Shields sounds like the very vaudevillian Roxie has long dreamed of being, lacking only the cigar.
Moment after moment in “Chicago’s” scenario resonates entertainingly, sometimes eerily, with what we already know of Shields. There’s a subversive kick to hearing her announce, “I’m older than I ever intended to be,” just as Roxie’s sudden pregnancy is inseparable from thoughts of Shields’ latest guise as the chronicler of post-partum depression. “None of us got any love in our childhood, and that’s showbiz, kid,” she says, though whether that’s Roxie or Shields talking can be hard to tell.
Shields appears to be enjoying the assignment, having extended her London stand five weeks through July 30.