The ever-growing appeal of 'Chicago'

Musical gets new life on Broadway and on the road

— They queue up eight times each week, theatergoers eager to see the stage show that launched this year's Academy Award-winning best picture. And these days, the lines that snake down 49th Street in front of the Ambassador Theatre keep getting longer.

More than six years after it first opened on Broadway, the revival of "Chicago" has found new life and new, younger audiences -- not only in New York, but in a second national tour that opened last month in Washington, D.C.

Already booked for a year, the new road company -- starring Bianca Marroquin, Brenda Braxton and Gregory Harrison -- is even playing cities the musical already has visited (some three or four times).

"'Chicago' is doing dynamite business," producer Barry Weissler says with the satisfaction of a man whose baby has grossed more than $600 million worldwide. "It is almost sold out here -- we are doing anywhere from 96 percent to 99 percent capacity, and in London it's the same.

"The whole project has become invigorated, and it happened before the movie broke (last December). Then the movie kept just pushing it up. ... 'Chicago' is 100 percent recognizable."

That recognition, buoyed by good word-of-mouth, grows partly out of the producer's scrupulous maintenance of the show.

"Maintenance is hiring the best production staff you can -- making sure your stage manager knows what he or she is doing. They're taking notes every night. If rehearsals are needed, we call them," Weissler says.

Each day, Weissler and others connected with the show get a stage manager's report (faxed, not e-mailed) on every performance around the world.

"That's true (a stage manager's report) of every Broadway show," says director Walter Bobbie, who usually reads the "Chicago" daily reports before going to bed. "The stage managers write it that night so that if there is any news to report, you know it. And if there is any troubleshooting that has to be accomplished before the next performance, it can be done."

Luring new audiences

Bobbie and choreographer Ann Reinking first worked on the show when the Kander and Ebb musical was done at City Center's "Encores!" concert series in May 1996 and then when it transferred to Broadway the following November.

"Over time, and out of necessity, we have put together an amazing staff," says Bobbie, who has directed all the English-speaking shows with an assist from Scott Faris, who has put together most of the European companies. "Ann's dancing is covered by Gary Chryst, who oversees some of the international productions."

Those productions have taken the show to London, Moscow, Sydney, Berlin, Stockholm, Mexico City, the Netherlands, Japan and South America. A French-speaking company is now playing in Montreal on its way to Paris. And in six months, another North American company will open, this time in Las Vegas. Bobbie and Chryst oversaw the current tour.

The producer has been very careful with casting. He extended the life of his 1994 revival of "Grease," which originally starred Rosie O'Donnell, by bringing in a parade of marketable names -- from Brooke Shields to Jon Secada to Sally Struthers to Lucy Lawless.

He's done the same with "Chicago."

"We try to find interesting names and angles," Weissler said. "Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys, for example, brought me a brand-new, young audience that we never had before," referring to the pop star who appeared last spring on Broadway and who will join the San Francisco engagement of the tour. "Denise Van Outen in London brought me a hot, sexy following which we never had before."

One local critic in St. Paul, Minn., where the tour is playing through July 20, even commented on the large number of theatergoers in their teens and early 20s on opening night at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

"The movie has brought such a huge interest back to this musical," said Lynn Von Eschen, the Ordway's vice president of programming and marketing. "People are enjoying the movie, but there's still a lot you are missing if you don't see the stage presentation. So they say, 'Let's go see it live."'

In New York, the crowds are often young, many of them tourists and at one recent performance, Russian, German and Hebrew could be heard.

Von Eschen booked the tour for a two-week run in St. Paul, but now says he wishes he had added a third week. "It's the kind of show that people want to see over and over," Von Eschen said. "There are a few of those out there, like 'Rent.' I wouldn't be surprised if 'Chicago' sticks around for a while now."

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