I finally saw Chicago. I saw it twice: on Sunday and Wednesday. The first time I bought a "rush" ticket, and for $26 was only about 6 rows back. Unfortunately the ticket was all the way off to the side of the stage and prevented its full view. The second time was a $21 standing-room only ticket at the back of the lower section of the seats. It wasn't too far from the stage, and I was fairly central. I just had to stand the whole time (and on my backpack, since I was a little too short to see over the dividing wall comfortably), but it was a much better viewing experience overall.
The production was a lot of fun to watch and definitely worth seeing twice. And things were different the second time. For example, the actress playing Roxy was different. The first night the understudy Bryn Dowling played her. The second night the current lead actress Charlotte D'Amboise did. They both played her somewhat differently: I thought the second Roxy was more naive and stupid as a character, whereas Dowling's Roxy was more sociopathic. Both contrast with what I remember of the movie version (though it's been several years since I saw it), when Renee Zellweger's Roxy was more driven throughout by ambition. That ambition wasn't really a factor in the musical version until about midway through, and this absence likely accounts for the variance in performances. Since the script itself doesn't really explain why Roxy does what she does until many scenes into it (when it then includes scenes that explicitly show her mental wheels turning) each actress can sort of fill in the blanks on their own.
Another thing that was different between the two performances was the audience. Because it's the holiday season both nights were comprised primarily of tourists. This was especially true the first night, which was Christmas Day and the first night of Chanukah. As a result I suspect that I may have been one of the few people in the audience who could even remotely be considered local. Many of the tourists were also foreign, and that can change the cultural orientation of the audience and affect how it responds to the performance. The audience the second night seemed to "get it" much more than the first had, and thus was much more responsive. One potential criticism of the production is that the cast tended to cruise directly from the end of one musical number right into the next scene, without giving the audience a chance to react. The first night the audience simply gave up trying to get any applause in, whereas the second night the audience seemed to win the battle of wills and made the actors pause for a moment to absorb some of the audience's appreciation.
One moment that I remember being quite popular the second night was Amos's "Mister Cellophane" number. The audience really enjoyed it, and it fueled the energy of actor P.J. Benjamin's performance. I also enjoyed Debra Monk's Matron "Mama," and noted it was sort of ironic when, in between both nights, I happened to catch her on a random "Law and Order" episode. (Quite a few members of the cast seem to have made appearances on the show, and I suspect that the show and its offspring have been very good for the economics of the local acting community throughout the years of its production.) She did seem incredibly familiar to me even the first time I saw her on stage, and I realized later that she'd also been on the "Nero Wolfe" series (with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton) on A&E a few years ago, which I was quite fond of.
Velma was played by Brenda Braxton, and she was really excellent. She had a husky, resonant voice, a ton of energy, and she really made Velma's personality come alive. I thought Velma, too, suffered as a character from the lack of exposition afforded by the musical's script, but the strength of the performance quickly overcame that problem.
The rest of the company was fun to watch too. Really excellent dancers, and I liked the way that the members of the "chorus" filled the roles of different incidental characters.
And then there was Huey. It was a real treat to watch him perform. Arguably this may partially be because he's the first person I've ever known who's been on Broadway. Everyone else I watched I got to "know" through their roles. But he's someone I've spoken to as an individual, which makes it a more substantive acquaintance and may have been behind that silly warm fuzzy proud feeling I got when I watched him take the stage.
He takes the stage much as he has done in many of his own shows - with an assertive, dramatic flair tinged with a certain impishness. There's also certain mannerisms and gestures that he's given to his Billy Flynn character that I recognize from his usual performances. But it's commendable how he doesn't force Billy Flynn to be simply a "Huey Lewis" in a suit pretending to be a lawyer. Huey is quite clearly playing a role, and playing it well.
For instance, there's his dancing. The dancing he does as Flynn is nothing like how he moves in his own concerts. Instead it's Bob Fosse dancing, yet Huey performed it as if he'd been doing it for years. I was totally impressed with how smoothly and willingly he moved around in ways that until just a short while ago were probably entirely unfamiliar to him. Surely his strong sense of rhythm and general familiarity with moving around a stage helped, but still, it's not something that just anyone can do, and his willingness to move around much differently than normal, with the particular abandon and precision it required, resulted in a really strong performance.
If there were any weaknesses to his performance they likely stemmed from lack of experience and/or training, and not a lack of talent. For instance, he's a terrific singer, and few people could sing what he does with his unmistakable soulfulness. But what makes him a fantastic R&B singer doesn't necessarily make him a great singer of show tunes. His voice doesn't quite resonate and carry as effortlessly as those in the cast with more vocal training. But he makes it work. He carries the tunes well and with personality, though with maybe more personality than Billy Flynn necessarily requires (Billy Flynn is glossy, while what makes Huey's singing so special is its emotional grittiness.) Still, his songs are completely stuck in my head now, particularly "Razzle Dazzle," which I now can't imagine being sung by anyone else in any other way than Huey's inimitable style, and the puppetry song, where Huey switches rapidly from a nasal, phony voice ("singing" for Roxy) and his own natural tenor, all the while balancing and bouncing an actress on his knee...
Huey also has a lot of raw acting talent, which can even be seen in some of his videos. (I'm thinking in particular of "If This is It," "Stuck with You," "Heart and Soul," etc.) He intuitively "gets" using his own body as a vessel for another personality, and he can comfortably convey a lot with his movements and expressions. In fact, he is particularly expressive with his face, and even during the second performance when I was all the way in the back I could clearly see every bemused Billy Flynn smirk.
I think, though, that he can benefit from more direction. It doesn't always seem, even in watching his movies, that he always knows how to comport himself within a role if there isn't something obvious the character should be doing. When there was something concrete for Flynn to do, he of course handled it deftly. It's in the other moments, when he just needs to exist as the character, that he doesn't necessarily seem to adopt the character's full physicality, and as a result his performance can sometimes seem a little wooden. However, based on interviews he's given about his role on Broadway I think some of his stiffness is due to polite trepidation: he really does not want to step on the toes of the rest of the cast, whose talent and professionalism he greatly admires. He may not be sure how much he can ooze beyond the basic confines of the role to fully occupy the character without it becoming too much. Again, I think this is something that experience and direction can help, and it's a criticism I make with the fullest amount of respect and hypocrisy - since it's not like I could do any better myself.
But all nits aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the production and Huey's performance especially. "Worth coming back from Germany for," I quipped to him after one of the shows, but only semi-jokingly. I think it's tremendously impressive that he was willing to challenge himself and even attempt the role, and I'm glad I got to see the results of his efforts.
He (and the other lead actors) will be with the show through January 15, and it's definitely worth checking out, even if just the once.