×

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

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

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

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Legit

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

  • MCC theater presents 'Alice By Heart'

    Steven Sater on Adapting 'Alice by Heart' From a Musical to a Book

    When producers approached lyricist Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) to adapt Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into a musical, his initial reaction was to recoil. His initial thought was that the book didn’t have a beginning, middle and an ending. But Sater pulled it off with his production of “Alice By Heart.” After an off-Broadway [...]

  • The Lehman Trilogy review

    Sam Mendes' 'Lehman Trilogy' Kicks off Ahmanson's New Season

    Sam Mendes’ “The Lehman Trilogy,” which took London’s West End by storm will be part of the Ahmanson’s lineup for the 2020-21 season. It will be joined by Broadway hits “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Artistic director Michael Ritchie announced the season that will also feature four fan favorites and another production to be [...]

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content