It's the fifth day of rehearsals for Chicago, and the director is presenting two numbers to the press, “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun.” She's noticeably nervous as she gets things started, apologizing for any potential lack of preparedness. The cast just got these numbers yesterday and this morning, she explains. Plus, it's her directorial debut.
Brooke Shields' production is the latest in the Hollywood Bowl's series of summer musicals, which has, over time, drawn bigger and glitzier celebrities to the stage. But this year's cast is particularly star-studded — and surprising. Headlining are Samantha Barks, the standout from Les Miserables the movie, playing Velma Kelly and, as Roxie, Ashlee Simpson. Yes, the Ashlee Simpson, best known for her music career and for getting caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live.
Also thrown into the mix are True Blood's Stephen Moyer as Billy, The Price Is Right host Drew Carey as Amos (yes, Carey and Simpson play a couple) and Xena: Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless as Mama Morton. But there's a method to the casting madness, as this group is hardly green onstage.
“She's just been a revelation to me,” Lawless says of Simpson. “It's really good casting. Ashlee and Sam are so different. They're like yin and yang. And it goes together just beautifully and seamlessly with such professionalism.”
Casting Simpson and Barks is indeed a twist on the expected, especially because Barks is six years younger than her co-star. While some productions have featured an older Roxie than Velma — notably the Oscar-winning film version, which featured 33-year-old Renee Zellweger opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones, 32 — Velma's role as the has-been singer-murderer, contrasted with Roxie as the hot new celebrity, lends itself to an older actress.
Barks, however, thinks the age switch provides a new twist on the tale. “Why's this young girl wound up in this position so early in her life? She's so driven and so fame-hungry,” she explains. “You can't help but make a slight different judgment of the character.”
It's a different take on the legendary musical — currently in its 17th year as a Broadway revival, making it the third-longest-running Broadway show in history — but after living in the show, Shields thinks she has a unique vision.
“When you're doing a show, you talk about it all the time,” she says of her time starring in the show both on Broadway and the West End. “You talk about every scene. Every night you talk about that show. Because it's all you do — it's all-consuming. It's not about changing what works. It's about revealing it again to a bigger — much, much bigger — audience.”
That bigness excites Shields, but it's intimidating for Moyer, whom Lawless describes as a secret “amazing English song-and-dance man.” Though he's been to the Bowl as a patron, he's never stepped on the stage.
“I'm scared, terrified,” Moyer says, adding, “I'm starting to believe there might be some excitement in there.”
Despite being Hollywood stars, the main cast members all have some experience onstage, be it Carey's role as Wilbur in the Bowl's Hairspray, Lawless' work as Rizzo in the mid-'90s Broadway revival of Grease or Simpson's previous outings as Roxie on the West End and Broadway.
Beyond Simpson and Shields, however, the cast's prior experience with Chicago is limited.
“I used to do it in my bedroom as a one-woman version when I was younger,” Barks jokes. “It's an absolute dream.”
“I didn't know it as well as some people do,” Moyer says. His last experience onstage was 18 years ago, at the age of 25, as Romeo in Romeo & Juliet. “When I was growing up, doing musicals, this was not a show that, obviously, because of the content, was an amateur show that 12-year-olds did.”
Despite some unfamiliarity with the show, the limited rehearsal time (they only started last week) and the eclectic mix of people, the cast is gelling.
“Each of them has a different amount of stage experience in their past, and they've all risen to it,” conductor Rob Fisher says. “No one is slacking.”
Chicago is at the Hollywood Bowl July 26-28. For performance times and tickets, go to Hollywoodbowl.com.
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