There is a dazzling new smile on Broadway packing audiences into the Ambassador Theatre where the long running revival of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical Chicago has been playing for a number of years. The charismatic smile belongs to the one and only Rhythm and Blues superstar, the one name wonder Usher. His presence in the acclaimed musical that has also been made into an Oscar winning film has revitalized the box office to such an extent that the show’s now scarce tickets have become a hot item in much demand.
The self proclaimed “Ultimate Entertainer” is making his Broadway stage debut branching out into his newest yet career arena. He plays the cynical silver fox Billy Flynn, following in a long line of leading men who have tackled the part of the hard edged criminal attorney including Jerry Orbach, who originated the role, James Naughton, who won a Tony, and Richard Gere who possessed a captivating charm that snared him an Oscar nomination in the recent film version.
The 27 year old Usher is much too young for the role and is required to play against type, but if he is not exactly up to the task – his acting is awkwardly wooden – he is nonetheless brimming with self confidence imbuing his singing and dancing with undeniable sex appeal. Usher knows what he is all about – sex. He has even said, “My style is sex walking,” and he instills Billy with a knowing sexual assurance that has the women panting. He is an undulating wonder of self styled charm that has little to do with the character’s darkness, but instead is more about showmanship and his megawatt smile.
His seductively alluring performance cuts against the gain of the character, but never mind audiences are cheering anyway. His dance moves are smoothly elegant, as he recreates the original Bob Fosse choreography beautifully streamlined here by Ann Reinking, and he looks as if he were born to wear a tuxedo. He has a good voice, which although romantically silky, lacks the required hard edge of the slick criminal attorney. He wisely, however, avoids his trademark R&B inflections, and his work in “We Both Reached for the Gun” is sensational.
Billy Flynn is really a supporting role in the story about two women criminals, who turn their notoriety into 15 minutes of fame, and Usher doesn’t make his first entrance greeted with hysterical adulation from his screaming fans, until almost 20 minutes into the evening, leaving much room for the outstanding ensemble. He is surrounded by a knock out cast of out performers, who work overtime to elevate the evening to its rightful place, and. if confidence is contagious; several have all caught the bug.
Bianca Marroquin has been playing the chorus girl Roxie Hart at the story’s center, who murders her lover, but avoids prison with Billy’s shrewd help, on and off since 2002. She is in one word fabulous! Not only a first rate singer/dancer she is also an excellent actress, and she brings a touching duality to the role displaying both self absorbed toughness and an innocent vulnerability that makes her Roxie ultimately quite moving.
Brenda Brazton, who portrays the other femme fatal Velma Kelly, is an outstanding singer and dancer, but her performance is more surface grit and less lived in.
The Tony Awarding winning star Lillias White is outrageously wonderful as Matron “Mama” Morton of the Cook County Jail. Her distinctive performance is dynamic and with her marvelous vocal styling she milks her big number, “When You’re Good to Mama,” for every last drop of comic effect. She is a tour de force of theatricality and the audience hoots in delight.
Also a winner is Kevin Chamberlin as Amos Hart, Roxie’s neglected husband, and his delivery of the song “Mr. Cellophane” is another audience pleaser. Lillias and Kevin will soon be replaced by two Chicago veterans, Roz Ryan and Rob Rarlett.
The show boasts a bevy of dancers that may be one of the sexiest chorus lines currently on Broadway, and the on stage orchestra under Leslie Stifleman’s conduction contributes immensely to the show’s winning achievements.
Star casting has enabled the clever producers, Barry and Fran Weissler, to keep the hit revival going for what will be 10 years this November. Revisiting the current production this is easy to understand. What you have here is a brilliant ensemble piece; a fantastic musical that was way ahead of its time in 1975 and now has tapped into the pulse of a new generation. Over the years the producers have been smart enough to make use of a long list of vastly different stars to play the five delicious roles, all of which can be standouts. The latest, Usher, is a Broadway gusher. Catch him in the show through October 14.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Usher opened in Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre, 219West 49th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue on September 7, 2006. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or at the box office.