×

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.

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

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content