Unlike many a manufactured pop star, Usher is the real deal. He can hit -- and hold -- his notes on a live stage and possesses an easy-to-listen-to voice. He also has a boyish charm, considerable stage presence, and a smile as disarming as Julia Roberts, all of which endear him to the audience. But all too often he rushes his lines or underplays a lyric, in the process failing to find the kind of reading that makes them stand out. Moreover, his best musical moments come not where you'd expect, in Billy's traditional show-stopper "Razzle Dazzle" -- which he briefly embellishes with a little bit of pop ooh-and-aahing and a few decidedly non-Fosse-like steps. Instead, he shines brightest in "We Both Reached for the Gun," a song in which he shows considerable comic flair.
But even if Usher is bringing in the crowds, the fact remains that Billy is really a supporting part in Chicago -- he doesn't even show up until around 20 minutes into the first act. And right now, the production's focus -- if not necessarily the audience's -- remains rightly where it belongs: on the two merry murderesses, the hard-bitten Velma Kelly (Brenda Braxton) and the naive, fame-stricken Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin). This is my third time seeing Braxton in the role, and my reaction has always been the same: She's a marvelous dancer and a first-rate singer, but her hardness seems too superficial and tinged with a desire to please the audience that goes against the character's grain.
Conversely, this is my first time seeing Marroquin as Roxie, although she's played the role off-and-on since 2002. Simply stated, she is sensational. Unlike many of the superstar names that have essayed the role -- some with surprisingly felicitous results -- the Mexican-born Marroquin is a completely natural singer and dancer, well-versed in the Fosse style. More importantly, she proves to be a consummate actress, perfectly capturing Roxie's singular commingling of naiveté and self-absorption -- so much so that she's actually quite moving at times. There's a real touch of the young Anita Morris about her, and maybe even a small pinch of Gwen Verdon, as well. (As a Broadway musical star in the audience commented to me after the show, she'd probably be a great Charity Hope Valentine.)
The show's current ensemble, including the extraordinary-voiced R. Lowe as goody-two-shoes reporter Mary Sunshine, is also doing very fine work. Michelle M. Robinson, Jennifer West, Donna Marie Asbury, Gabriela Garcia, and Bryn Dowling display a wonderful range of personalities on the indelible "The Cell Block Tango." On the male side, it's a true pleasure to watch singer/dancers like Denis Jones, Eric Jordan Young, Matthew Risch, and the invaluable Gregory Butler flex and strut their well-toned stuff.
Unfortunately, you have only until Sunday the 10th to catch two of the show's strongest assets. Tony Award winner Lillias White is bringing her incomparable vivacity and vocal stylings to bear on Matron Mama Morton, and Kevin Chamberlin is a stupendous Amos Hart. Despite his bulk, he truly embodies the unimpressive, inconsequential man described in the brilliant "Mr. Cellophane" -- a song with which he manages to bring down the house. (They will be replaced by two Chicago veterans, Roz Ryan and Rob Bartlett, respectively.)
The revolving door is sure to turn again shortly; we already know that Tony Award winner Bebe Neuwirth will come back for a three-month start as Roxie (not Velma, her original role) beginning on New Year's Eve. For now, however, Usher is making himself at home on the stage of the Ambassador Theater, and the welcome mat is out.