Hit show turned hit movie hits road as 'Chicago' rides again
THE world, it seems, just can't get enough of "Chicago," the ebullient jazz-age musical that nearly tanked when it first appeared in 1975.

All but blown off Broadway by "A Chorus Line," the Bob Fosse-directed and choreographed "Chicago" would have to wait more than 20 years to be properly appreciated.

When audiences finally re-discovered "Chicago," they did it in a big way. First there was the 1996 revival directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Fosse favorite Ann Reinking.

Spare, elegant and just plain hot, the show snapped up six Tony Awards and got movie producers sniffing around.

Before you could say Roxie Hart, Miramax had put the movie into production, and the happy ending for "Chicago" came last spring when the movie, starring Rene Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere, won six Oscars, including best picture.


The movie, which comes out on DVD later this month, was such a hit that Broadway producers Fran and Barry Weissler decided the country needed to see "Chicago" in its original live form. A new national tour was born.

As if seeing the story of "merry murderesses" Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart wasn't enough to entice "Chicago" fans into the theater, the Weisslers have beefed up the cast with some stars.

Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson takes over the Gere role of slick lawyer Billy Flynn. And Marcia Lewis Bryan, a Tony nominee for the "Chicago" revival, is stepping back into the role of Matron Mama Morton for four cities on the tour, including San Francisco, where "Chicago" opens Wednesday at the Golden Gate Theatre.

"'Chicago' was way ahead of its time in 1975," Bryan says. "I saw the original production with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon and made a note in my head that someday I'd like to do the role of Mama, the prison matron. By the time Encores! revived the play in 1996, the world had caught up with the show. What was bad taste in the 1970s -- murderers becoming celebrities -- made us smirk in the 1990s."

Newlywed Bryan, who now makes her home near Nashville, Tenn., says she's as happy as can be with her new role as wife but didn't need much prodding to jump back into the role of Mama.

"Our company has been inspired by the movie, even if only subconsciously," Bryan says. "As different as they are, they still have the same wonderful energy. I loved the movie because it was so in your face. I thought Queen Latifah as Mama was marvelous."

At 31, pop idol Richardson is a tad young to be playing worldly Billy, but he comes with a pedigree of having performed the role on Broadway.

Last winter, Richardson -- the eldest of the Backstreet quintet -- made his Broadway debut as Billy and caused screaming fans to line up around the Shubert Theatre.

"It was a dream come true being on Broadway," says the Kentucky native who grew up doing school and community musicals. "To make my debut in such a cool show was awesome. 'Chicago' is theater at its stripped-down best. There are no scenery or costume changes, so it's all about the actors, the dancers and the music."

Richardson, filling in for Gregory Harrison, will perform for the show's three weeks in San Francisco, then he plans to jump into the London company, which has been up and running for five years now.

The Backstreet image -- suave, sincere and sweet as pie -- would seem to be at odds with the more reptilian lawyer Flynn.

"I can be cynical. We can all be cynical," Richardson says. "I play him as a young, very confident, hot, on-fire attorney who has everything going for him and knows exactly what he's doing."

Being in the music business, Richardson says he has encountered his share of smooth Flynn-like characters.

"I totally know this guy," he says. "I draw on the music industry for certain parts of this character. There are some good people in show business, and there are sharks."

If Richardson is on the road with "Chicago" and planning a long London stint, that must mean the Backstreet Boys have -- gasp -- broken up.

Not so, says Richardson.

"We've been together 10 years," he says. "We're all giving each other a chance to follow our dreams. Brian (Littrell) is enjoying his baby boy and planning a gospel album. A.J. (Maclean) is working on a solo album, and so are Howie (Dorough) and Nick (Carter). I may be shooting a film in Spain this winter, and I'm writing and producing for some artists I'm helping develop. When I'm not in acting class or at auditions, I'm in the studio with these musicians."

Earlier this year the Backstreet Boys gathered together to talk about future projects, but, as Richardson puts it, "not everybody was on the same page."

"We realize our fans want another record," he says. "We feel like we owe ourselves another record, but at this point, we don't feel like gettin' in the studio and puttin' it together. It'll all take care of itself when the time is right."

You can e-mail Chad Jones at cjones@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4853.