For the purposes of this “Chicago” Broadway review, there are a few things you should know.
- “Chicago” is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. I just may be the one person on the East Coast of the United States who has never seen “Chicago” on stage, though I did see (and thoroughly enjoy) the 2002 film version.
- I suffer from a 15 year crush on – and slight obsession with – Israeli singer Shiri Maimon.
So as you can imagine, I took my seat Tuesday night at the Ambassador Theatre with the unbridled excitement of a giddy schoolgirl (in a man’s body). Shiri on Broadway? Right here in New York? After months of anticipation, I couldn’t wait to finally witness the grand reveal.
I’m not a Broadway critic, so I won’t take time to review the show itself. However, let me say that this is a FUN production. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously; where the omnipresent orchestra takes up three quarters of the stage throughout the show and cast members sit – visibly – on the sides of the action, watching the production along with all of us and waiting for their cue to return.
The actors who portrayed the main characters were flawless and fun. John O’Hurley (of “Seinfeld” fame) as attorney Billy Flynn, Raena White as “Mama” Morton, and Amra-Faye Wright as co-star Velma Kelly were all phenomenal in their roles. Amra-Faye Wright was especially impressive, having played the role of Velma on Broadway and worldwide since 2001.
But I’m here to talk about Shiri, who officially joined the cast as Roxie Hart on Friday night, September 21.
If there’s some sort of traditional transition period when a Broadway newbie joins an all-star cast of an iconic production, Shiri whizzed past it long ago. She clearly loves the stage. Shiri showed no sign of nerves or hesitation, and looked cozy and comfortable on the biggest stage of her career.
I never had the chance to see Shiri in the Israeli production of “Evita”, but it’s clear that she embraced that opportunity to “grow up” as a theatrical actress. Now in “Chicago”, Shiri owned the role, strutting up and down the stage with the poise of an experienced Broadway veteran. She looks great, and fits right in.
“Chicago” is known for its extensive choreography, and Shiri seamlessly jumped right in. I was quite impressed by the relative ease with which she seemed to pick up complicated dance moves in a relatively short time.
In “We Both Reached for the Gun”, one of my favorite musical numbers, Shiri masterfully transformed herself into Billy Flynn’s marionette, mouthing the words he sang while flopping around like a puppet on a string. Both actors need to be dead-on in their timing for the song to work, and Shiri and co-star John O’Hurley nailed it.
Hebrew on Broadway!
The best moment for me came in the middle of Act I. With the orchestra seated on stage at all times, they sometimes become part of the action. “Roxie” walks over to the conductor to show him the newspaper with her name in it, says “hi” to the members of the orchestra, then turns to the audience and calls out “CHAG SUKKOT SAMEACH!” Those who understood – and apparently, there were A LOT of us in the audience that night– immediately went nuts, roaring with excitement at the sound of a few words of Hebrew uttered on the Broadway stage.
(Those who didn’t understand must’ve thought we were all crazy.)
But not all is rosie for Roxie, unfortunately.
We already knew Shiri could sing. I was hoping the show would let Shiri be Shiri, belting out musical numbers as only she can. But I feel that her voice was under-utilized in this role. Though by no means her fault, Shiri’s vocal talents were not on full display in her Broadway debut, and that’s too bad. To make matters worse, it seemed at times that the volume on her microphone was a bit too low. By contrast, Ms. Wright as “Velma” was always loud, clear and powerful.
More than anything else, however, I couldn’t get past her Israeli accent.
You know how the producers of “Wonder Woman” made all of the Amazonian women sound just like Gal Gadot? Well, when you live in Chicago, chances are you’re not gonna sound like that.
I know Shiri worked very hard to eliminate any Israeli-isms in her dialect. She told me so when I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago. And when singing, she was generally successful.
But whenever she spoke, she simply couldn’t disguise her accent. To me, it took away from the experience and almost sounded, I’m sad to say, amateurish. After all, how is it possible that a tough American girl from Chicago sounds like she just got off the plane from another country?
As a result, I felt that Shiri never truly “became” Roxie. I’m not sure this was the right part for her Broadway debut, unfortunately. The whole thing felt a little gimmicky, as if the producers looked for a quick and easy way to get thousands of Israelis to pack a Broadway theater.
In that regard, they were quite successful. I’ve never heard so much Hebrew spoken in a rest room on Broadway.
Israeli Pride in NYC
And to be fair, Shiri Maimon worked her butt off to get where she is this week, and did a damn good job with the role overall. She’s taken a journey from Kochav Nolad to the Great White Way in a relatively short period of time, and she looked great on the Broadway stage. It’s impossible not to be proud of her.
In introducing Shiri to the press two weeks ago, “Chicago” producer Barry Weissler told reporters, “She is not known in this country. We intend to make her known.”
I can only hope that he is right.
WATCH: The “Kan” news report (in Hebrew) on Shiri’s opening night on Broadway: