News Column

Chicago broadway series

August 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 29--Diamonds, as a famous song tells us, are a girl's best friend. But there are times -- say, when she's charged with murder -- when she needs something brighter, maybe even flashier.

Enter Billy Flynn.

In "Chicago," the 1975 musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Flynn is the flamboyant lawyer whose high-wire approach to the court of public opinion gives his clients something better than justice: celebrity. He's part guardian angel, part huckster, all showman.

And he's coming back around as the driving force of the hit show, which has become a powerhouse of the musical theater repertoire since its Tony-winning mid-1990s Broadway revival and an Oscar-winning 2002 movie version. The latest U.S. touring production comes to the Keller Auditorium for an eight-show stand starting Tuesday.

Loosely based on a handful of 1920s murder cases first turned into a play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, "Chicago" follows the headline-grabbing stories of vaudeville star Velma Kelly and fame-hungry housewife Roxie Hart, who both have, you might say, killer good looks. As they become rivals for the attention of a public addicted to the vicarious thrill of their lurid exploits, it is the charismatic Flynn who pulls the strings on their criminal cases and their careers.

"Billy Flynn is actually a very interesting character," says John O'Hurley, who has played the role regularly for several years, with in stints on Broadway and on several national tours. "I think he's very dangerous. It's too easy to play him as a slick oil -- there's a very complicated personality under there.

"He obviously has a sense of eloquence, a very dashing quality about him. But there's a quality in him that I don't see anybody else touching on: There's an intrinsic paternal quality about him, that he uses to his advantage. I find singular moments in the show and let it peek out.

"But the thing is, under his aegis, under his protection when he's in the courtroom, you're one of his. Once that's over and they've passed out the verdict, it's 'Buh-bye!'"

There's much more to "Chicago" than Flynn's trickster act, of course. The story features a juicy mixture of criminality and show biz, cold calculation and heated passion. The songs ("All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," "Razzle Dazzle") are saucy. And the choreography and staging have the eye-popping style that made Fosse so famous.

O'Hurley -- who is best known from stints on "Seinfeld" and "Family Feud" but has a lengthy stage resume as well -- puts "Chicago" among his choices for the five greatest musicals of all time. (His other favorites: "Man of LaMancha," "Les Miserables," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Jersey Boys.")

The show isn't foolproof, however. Portland's Broadway Across America audiences learned that the hard way in 2007, when a production that featured the excellent Tom Wopat as Billy Flynn nonetheless was derailed by Lisa Rinna (like O'Hurley, an alumnus of TV's "Dancing With the Stars"), an absolute train wreck as Roxie Hart. Chances are this tour will avoid such a grim fate, as Paige Davis -- widely known from the home-improvement TV show "Trading Spaces" -- brings solid Broadway experience to the Roxie role. And whatever Roxie's fate, Billy Flynn will be there, keeping things lively.

"It's important to me to keep it fresh," O'Hurley says of performing the show. "I say one prayer before I go onstage: 'Let me surprise myself sometime during the night.' And it has, honest to goodness, never failed me. If I'm there every moment, and that's the only thing I focus on, then the role will deepen and deepen. So if I say I've done the show over a thousand times, the role for me is infinitely richer and more authentic than when I first did it in 2005. Extraordinary things occur to me in each show, because I'm out there looking for them.

"When I hang up the tux after the show, it's been a good night."

-- Marty Hughley

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(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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