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Published: Thursday, 3/1/2007

'Chicago' stays fresh: Co-star says today's headlines keep the musical current

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Terra MacLeod, left, as Velma Kelly and Michelle DeJean as
Roxie Hart in the Theater League production of Chicago, which
runs Wednesday through March 11 in the Stranahan Theater. Terra MacLeod, left, as Velma Kelly and Michelle DeJean as Roxie Hart in the Theater League production of Chicago, which runs Wednesday through March 11 in the Stranahan Theater.
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Michelle DeJean, who plays Roxie Hart in the Theater League production of Chicago that opens Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater, ardently hopes that Toledoans won't be on their best behavior.

In a telephone interview from the tour's run in Tokyo, DeJean says Chicago is being well received there, but Japanese audiences are conservative and believe that it's rude to interrupt a show with applause.

"They like to wait to the end, then they just go wild and they show you that they love it," she said. That might be polite, but it makes it difficult for the performers to get a sense of how the audience is responding.

So please, she said, feel free to applaud and laugh and boo the villains. "If you guys like it, I want you to show it, because it's been a very quiet two weeks for the cast. We've all said, 'I can't wait to get to Toledo and hear some American audiences again.'•"

Set in the 1920s, Chicago is the tale of two women on trial for murder: Velma Kelly is a vaudeville performer who is accused of murdering her philandering husband, and Roxie Hart is an aspiring actress, who is accused of murdering her lover. Both women adore the spotlight, and neither is about to concede her headlines to the other.

Both are represented by Billy Flynn, a media-savvy and not-quite-ethical lawyer. Late yesterday, it was confirmed that Tom Wopat, who played Luke Duke on television's The Dukes of Hazzard, would play Flynn in Toledo.

Originally written as a satirical comedy by Maurine Watkins, it opened on Broadway in 1926 and ran for 172 performances.

It was reworked in 1975 by Bob Fosse, who, with the help of John Kander and Fred Ebb, turned it into a musical starring Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon. It ran for more than 900 performances and was nominated for, but didn't win, multiple Tony Awards.

A revival opened in 1996, choreographed by Fosse disciple Ann Reinking, who starred as Roxie. Bebe Neuwirth had the role of Velma. Still running, the show is closing in on 4,300 performances and won five Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical, best actor (James Naughton), best actress (Neuwirth), and best choreography (Reinking).

DeJean says she has been associated with the show for about nine years.

"I was in [the Broadway company] for a four-year stint, then I left to go on the road to do Roxie for a couple of years, then I went back. They bring me back to the New York company for short stints here and there. I just finished doing a few months there over Thanksgiving and Christmas, then Bebe (Neuwirth) took over for me, switching her roles from Velma to Roxie."

DeJean attributes some of the longevity to the 2002 Academy Award winning movie, which starred Renee Zellweger as Roxie and brought an Oscar to Catherine Zeta Jones as Velma.

"Actually, the movie saved us, because on Broadway we were dying out," she said. "Everybody who wanted to see it had seen it, and it had been running for years and years and it seemed it was maybe coming to an end, then the movie came out and it boosted our ticket sales, and we've been going gangbusters ever since."

She also attributes the show's staying power to its subject matter.

"There's always going to be sensationalism, there's always going to be crime. There are always people getting away with murder who are celebrities. We see it every day. When the revival was first released, when it first came out, it was during the O.J. Simpson case. Then you had the Menendez brothers, then you had Michael Jackson. There's always something going on - like Anna Nicole Smith - that kind of makes the show current.

"The script is so smart and the music (which includes songs such as "All That Jazz," "The Cell Block Tango," and "Razzle Dazzle") is so incredibly catching and jazzy and sexy and hot."

There are some differences between the movie and the play, DeJean said. For one thing, the very funny (and sometimes rude) song "Class" was omitted from the movie. But even more than that, there is the element of the unexpected in live theater.

"You see a movie and it's been edited and clipped and everything's perfect, just how the director wanted it. Well, you know, things happen, like tonight my microphone went out when I started my big monologue, which is the biggest thing I do in the show, and it went out, completely. We had this huge house and it was amazing, because the band immediately got quiet, and they turned everybody's mic down a little bit, and I played Ethel Merman for that number, I really just belted it out. Audience members love stuff like that. Because it's live, that's what it's all about, you never quite know what's going to happen."

In the Theater League production, Terra MacLeod plays Velma, a role she also played on Broadway, and DeJohn says that unlike their characters, there is little competition between them for the spotlight.

"Tara's wonderful. She and I have been working together for quite a while doing this, and we have a great chemistry both on and off stage. We have a lot of fun together. She is the most giving and selfless actor that I've ever worked with," she said.

It's obvious that DeJean approaches her role as much more than a job.

"Roxie is probably the only person in the show who gets to do an entire emotional journey. We see her at her best, at her worst, when she is as low as she can get. She's laughing, she's crying, she's a goofball. At the end of the show, I am as much mentally exhausted as physically, which is wonderful.

"This is one of the few shows like Cats shows that people will stay with for years and years because it's fulfilling. At the end of the night you really feel you've done a great piece of work that not only the audience enjoys but you as an artist enjoy doing night after night after night."

Theater League presents "Chicago" Wednesday through March 11 in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through March 9, 2 and 8 p.m. March 10, and 2 and 7 p.m. March 11. Tickets range from $23 to $54. Information: 419-381-8851.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.



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