Ninety years ago during the Roaring ’20s, the press was transfixed by two sensational court cases in Chicago in which attractive married women were accused of murdering their lovers.
Their parallel stories and acquittals, both attained by celebrity lawyers, resulted not only in the women becoming celebrities themselves; they also became the subject of a play by a woman reporter who covered both trials.
Over the half-century that followed, this 1926 play evolved into the hit musical, “Chicago,”the longest-running musical revival and longest-running American musical in Broadway history.
While this award-winning extravaganza continues its record run on the Great White Way, its touring production opens the 2014-15 Broadway in New Orleans seasonat the Saenger Theatre with eight shows, starting Oct. 7.
With a book and musical score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret”) and original choreography from Bob Fosse, “Chicago” introduced the world to such Broadway classics as “All That Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “I Can’t Do It Alone” and nearly two dozen others.
When the Broadway version opened in 1975, the characters of the two acquitted women from the ’20s were rewritten to cast both of them as nightclub entertainers, even though only one of them actually was. Beulah Annan was a laundry bookkeeper who morphed into glamorous showgirl Roxie Hart. Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer, was reborn as Velma Kelly.
Terra C. MacLeod has been performing the role of Velma for much of the past 10 years, both on Broadway and on tour. “I think the great thing about this role is, when you dive into it and you have longevity with it, it’s kind of like an onion,” she said. “You’re just constantly peeling back the layers of the character.
“Over the years, what I’ve discovered with Velma Kelly is that she really is a fighter. She’s got her stamina, and she has her ambition. Even though there is kind of a dark black comedy side to this show, there’s an awful lot of truth into who these people are.”
MacLeod’s character opens the show with perhaps its best-known number, “All That Jazz.” She reprises the number at the end of Act I, and then the song comes in for a grand finale at the close of the production.
MacLeod also has several other solo pieces, as well as three duets with Roxie Hart, who is both her friend and rival for celebrity status. The two of them are constantly trying to one-up each other.
John O’Hurley, the award-winning actor who is best known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” performs the role of Billy Flynn, the celebrity lawyer who gets both women off the hook. The role of Roxie, which is most frequently performed on tour by Bianca Marroquin, was unannounced at press time.
Classically trained in vocal and theatrical arts, MacLeod sees her role as constantly evolving, despite having performed it frequently since 2004.
“Velma is the kind of a role that you grow with,” she said. “I think it’s the only way. This is not a cookie-cutter role. ... I could not do this if it was a cookie-cutter role because I’d feel robotic. And when I’m up there on that stage there’s nothing robotic about my performance. Ever.”