When the national touring production of “Chicago” rolls into Bass Hall for a three-day, five-performance run beginning Feb. 16, its lead actress will be returning to the city where she made her stage debut.
But if you saw her in that show, you may not recognize her in this one.
“My first show was ‘Peter and the Wolf’ at Casa Mañana,” says Dylis Croman, referring to a dancing role she played as a youngster in a children’s theater show at the domed theater in Fort Worth.
But now Croman, who was born in Dallas and raised in Irving, is all grown up and playing Roxie Hart, the hard-as-nails hussy who drives the action in the darkly comic “Chicago.” And, although her character is not exactly adorable, Croman loves this show and her role.
“I have been doing ‘Chicago’ for 10 years, on and off, and I have been playing Roxie for four years,” says Croman, who has appeared in seven Broadway shows, including ‘Chicago,’ and several national tours. “I get to really relate to the audience as Roxie. At one point in the show, I am onstage for like six minutes by myself talking to the audience. That is one of my favorite moments in the show because I really get to have my own time with the audience and form a relationship with them.”
It is hard to image how a performer could be better prepared for a part than Croman is for this one. She learned how to play the character from someone very close to this show’s creation.
“I have been dancing since I was 3 years old,” says Croman, who moved to New York to work in dance and theater the day after she graduated from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas at age 17. “But a real turning point for me was meeting Ann Reinking.”
Reinking is the famous protégé and muse of legendary dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse, who choreographed, directed and co-authored the book for the original Broadway production of “Chicago” in 1975. She also played Roxie Hart during the show’s initial run, and in the 1996 revival, for which she redid the choreography, based on Fosse’s original plan.
“I met her at a three-week, summer intensive program in Florida. She became my mentor at the age of 14 and introduced me to the Fosse style, which really fit in my body as a dancer,” says Croman. “But the whole program was centered around singing, dancing and acting. Not just doing any one of those three things.”
Reinking later invited Croman to audition for a part in a production of the musical “Applause.”
“I was cast in that, and that really got the ball rolling for me to get other parts,” says Croman.
And it is a good thing that Croman took such a holistic approach to performance under Reinking. There are few musical theater roles that require a more balanced set of skills than that of Roxie Hart.
“You have to be sure you do the basic things like eating right, getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of water,” says Croman, about the challenges of playing such a physically demanding part and coping with the rigors of being on the road. “It is a learned thing to keep your stamina up as you are dancing and singing at the same time. So it is definitely something that takes a lot of practice and work.”
“Chicago” has demanded plenty of practice and work from thousands of performers over its amazing lifetime. It is the longest running American musical in Broadway history. Its first run had 932 performances, and the current revival (which has now run for more than 20 years) will almost certainly reach the 10,000 performance plateau this summer. Only Andrew Lloyd Webber’s juggernaut, “The Phantom of the Opera,” has cracked that 10,000 performance barrier or had more nights on Broadway.
“A lot of the time, I think the music really wins people over. People who haven’t seen the show tell me afterwards that they didn’t realize how many songs they knew from the show, like “Razzle Dazzle” and “All That Jazz,” says Croman. “But really, this show is the total package. The lyrics and the score propel the storyline. So it all goes together. And its timeless.”
Chicago: The Musical
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
How 'Chicago' came to be
“Chicago” has an amazing backstory. Its lurid tale has been told in the context of a play, a musical and three films over its incredible lifetime. Here is a breakdown of the show’s evolution.
“Chicago” (1926) — Playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins did not have to look far for inspiration when she wrote the non-musical stage play that started this whole franchise. As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the Prohibition Era, she saw plenty of tough characters and rough situations.
She used a couple of murder cases she covered to create the characters of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, a pair of coldhearted murderesses who use their feminine wiles and the skills of oily lawyer Billy Flynn to coax all-male juries toward acquittal.
“Chicago” had 172 Broadway performances in 1926-27, but that was just a warm-up for this story.
Watkins went on to write other plays, but her only other Broadway show, “Revelry,” lasted a mere 48 performances. She had better success with screenplays, writing or collaborating on several, including the witty comedy “The Libeled Lady” (1936), which starred William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.
“Chicago” (1927) — The five-month run of Watkins’ play apparently caught the eye of Hollywood. Famed producer Cecil B. DeMille brought the story to the silent screen (the talkies had just begun to appear in 1927). It is not usually cited as a major work by DeMille, but it was the first example of this story being told on the silver screen.
“Roxie Hart” (1942) — This World War II-era version stars famed dancer Ginger Rogers, but it is not a musical. It takes Watkins’ original and softens it a great deal, while ratcheting up the comedic elements. Among the changes it makes is that Roxie, who is revealed as the guilty party early on in the play, is depicted as innocent in this version. She takes the blame for a murder committed by her husband, just to get publicity to forward her show business career. It is presented as a safe gambit because most female defendants (especially the pretty ones) seemed to frequently escape prosecution in Chicago in the era of the story.
“Chicago” (2002) — This blockbuster version of the musical cast Hollywood stars rather than Broadway types. But Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere (who, as Billy Flynn, was perhaps the most shocking casting choice) certainly did deliver. Taking a highly creative and self-consciously cinematic approach to the musical stage version, the movie garnered six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Zeta-Jones.
“Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville” (1975-77) — The musical based on Watkins’ play first appeared on Broadway in 1975 with a “who’s who” of Broadway talent. It features music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the team who created “Cabaret.” The book is by Ebb and the show’s director and choreographer, Bob Fosse. Broadway legend Gwen Verdon, who was married to Fosse from 1960 until his death in 1987, was the original Roxie Hart, Chita Rivera played Velma and Jerry Orbach portrayed Billy Flynn in this first Broadway run.
“Chicago: The Musical” (1996-present) — It may appear that “Chicago” stayed dormant for 20 years between its Broadway runs, but that is not the case. After its initial Broadway run, the show immediately began a series of international tours that continue to this day. It has been seen from Bucharest to Bogota.
The show roared back in late 1996 with a few tweaks to its content and a new name (although the show has always been popularly known as simply “Chicago,” without any after-the-colon embellishments). As previously noted, it is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. And it has had at least 10 North American tours since the revival debuted. You don’t have to look at the show’s posters to know that “Chicago” has legs.
Finally, all of those productions have required a lot a Roxies. Here are just a few of the better-known actress who have played that role: Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Ann Reinking, Ashley Simpson, Sandy Duncan, Renee Zellweger, Brooke Shields, Bebe Neuwirth (who has also played Velma and Mama Morton), Melanie Griffith and Marilu Henner.