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.