Shiri Maimon and Broadway cast of ‘Chicago’ dazzle Tel Aviv

“When I performed on Broadway, a lot of Israelis came and made me feel at home there, but here it is a different experience – it’s really home.”

By YAKIR FELDMAN
March 13, 2019 20:34
A SCENE from ‘Chicago’

A SCENE from ‘Chicago’. (photo credit: ORIT PNINI)

 
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The Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv has a seating capacity of 2,412 and, as far as I could tell, every seat was filled with an excited theatergoer Thursday night, the opening night of Chicago – the musical.

Sellout crowds for that giant-sized theater, a staff member disclosed to The Jerusalem Post, are not a routine occurrence. What does it take to motivate so many people to leave the comfort of their homes for a not-so-inexpensive evening out?

We asked several dozen people seated before the show started why they came. The two most common and enthusiastic responses revealed that both the show and its Israeli guest star have more than their share of local fans: “Because it’s Chicago!” and “Because it’s Shiri Maimon!”

The show

Chicago’s popularity is legendary. It is the second-longest-running show in the history of Broadway, surpassed only by The Phantom of the Opera. It is estimated that tens of millions of people have enjoyed its thousands of performances worldwide over a span of many years. The riveting 2002 film version starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was a box-office smash, grossing more than $300 million.

The story is based on true events. In the 1920s several women who allegedly murdered the men in their lives were acquitted and became celebrities. A reporter who covered the crimes wrote a satirical theatrical version in 1926 about the phenomenon, highlighting aspects such as greed, exploitation, publicity, the media, fleeting celebrity, corruption and (in)justice. A rewritten version of the play choreographed by Bob Fosse opened in 1975.

The action takes place primarily in a prison death row and in a courtroom. The dialogue is witty, the songs are clever and catchy and the choreography stunning. Beyond all of that jazz is the fact that the play remains chillingly relevant; the issues it tackles are largely the same ones we read about in the most current headlines today.

The guest star

Shiri Maimon is one of our own – one of Israel’s best-loved singers. Her stellar career as a performer began when she was just 10 years old. In 2003, at the age of 22, she rocketed to fame with a show-stopping vocal performance on Kochav Nolad. In 2005, she led Israel to one of its top results ever in Eurovision, capturing fourth place. Her albums have reached gold and platinum status; she has won numerous music awards; she was a judge for three seasons of The X Factor Israel and more.

Maimon is an equally gifted actress. She won a theater award for her performance in Evita at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv, and it was during a performance that she was spotted by one of the Chicago producers, who invited her to audition for the iconic role of Roxie Hart – which has been played by notable actresses such as Denise Van Outen, Brooke Shields, Zellweger, Liza Minnelli, Melanie Griffith and Christie Brinkley.

How was Maimon selected to become the first native Israeli actress to star on Broadway? As Chicago producer Barry Weissler relates in an interview on YouTube, “Shiri is multitalented, beautiful, with a great personality; she seemed like a perfect choice for us.”

Weissler was right. The Broadway performances in September won critical and popular acclaim; a large contingent of Israelis in the New York audiences showered Maimon with adulation.
Fortunately, the Broadway cast and band have now come to perform in Israel, giving us an opportunity to experience the show without booking a flight to the United States.

The performance

The opening night performance seemed flawless: exuberant, funny and, at the right times, moving. For the cast of Broadway veterans, this is perhaps to be expected, as many of them have been honing their roles in the show to perfection for several years.

Maimon’s abundant talent and professionalism ensured that one would never know that her connection with the show is relatively recent, and that her rehearsal and preparation time has been extremely limited. She played the role with charm, panache and complete control – the dialogue, singing and dancing. She has completely mastered the art of performing in English, albeit without the characteristic Chicago twang of the 1920s, and the actors and musicians exuded chemistry, energy, passion and, well, razzle-dazzle onstage.

Although the name on everybody’s lips in Tel Aviv was Shiri Maimon, the entire Broadway cast deserves a call-out (and a thank-you for coming to Israel), such as standouts Terra C. MacLeod as the desperate Velma Kelly, Peter Lockyer as the smarmy Billy Flynn and Paul Vogt as the hapless and nearly invisible Amos Hart.

The set is an exact replica of the Broadway version, with the orchestra center stage and occasionally even part of the action. One might long to see more spectacle at a Broadway production, but the fact that the scenery is intentionally minimalistic makes the show ideal for going on the road (it has traveled to more than 30 countries) and keeps the action focused on the unfolding human drama.

The theater’s sound system was excellent – the audience throughout the cavernous theater was able to hear every word of the dialogue without volume overkill.

Two large screens on either side of the stage provided intriguing translations into Hebrew of the fast-paced idiomatic English, but there were no giant on-screen projections of the actors and action. So, due to the considerable distance of many of the seats from the stage, it is recommended to consider bringing binoculars to be able to see the actors’ expressions clearly.

Maimon elicited strong emotional approval and appreciation from the crowd several times, particularly when she first appeared on stage, when she injected a bit of well-timed Hebrew into her character’s dialogue, and in her heartwarming remarks from the stage after the performance. A quick exit poll of audience members leaving the theater after the performance confirmed that the theatergoers were extremely pleased with what they had just viewed.

INTERVIEWED AFTERWARD, Maimon spoke of the love that she felt from the audience.

“Wow ­– it was amazing. When I performed on Broadway, a lot of Israelis came and made me feel at home there, but here it is a different experience – it’s really home.”

Regarding plugging into a cast that has been performing together for so long, she said, “It was challenging, but I’m a hard worker. The cast is amazing; they are all so supportive. They gave me a feeling like ‘We’re here for you,’ and that really helped me.”

Maimon’s feelings for the cast are warmly reciprocated. For example, interviewed together, cast members Matthew Winnegge and Taylor Collins gushed, “Shiri – she’s so sweet and tiny! It’s an honor to work with her. She’s been so warm to us. She’s beautiful; her voice is stunning. She jumped right in, just as if she has been doing it all along with us. She definitely lived up to our hopes and expectations. She’s great.”

Kate Wesler also mentioned the pleasure her fellow actors felt performing with their Israeli cast member.

“Shiri’s fabulous. Her voice is just butter – it’s so wonderful. It’s no wonder that she makes a perfect Roxie. She fits in perfectly, like she’s always been there.”

The experience was memorable. As a publicity promo says, it would be criminal to miss this play.

The nine remaining performances (the final show is on March 16) are nearly sold out, but there are still a few tickets available (NIS 245 to NIS 495) at www.eventim.co.il

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