(Bianca Marroquin and Lewis Cleale)

By Jeff Maisey

Fresh on the heels of last year’s “The Sound of Music” in concert, the Virginia Arts Festival presents “Chicago The Musical” in concert May 6 at Chrysler Hall.

For audiences, experiencing Broadway musicals in a concert setting is both unique and enjoyable, especially given the quality of the songwriting, familiarity of the work, and personal connection to either the film version or on-stage musical theater production. 

Broadway conductor Rob Fisher will once again lead the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and has arranged for an A-list of vocalists who are Broadway regulars such as Bianca Marroquin, Lana Gordon, Lewis Cleale, Tari Kelly, and Matthew Deming.

“Chicago The Musical,” as you likely know, has been the longest running American musical on Broadway in history. It has scored countless awards and audiences simply love the show tunes such as “All That Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “Cell Block Tango,” and “When You’re Good to Momma.” 

Since 1996, Norfolk-raised Rob Fisher has been the music director of the musical as well as its worldwide touring productions. 

I recently interviewed Fisher at the Arts Festival headquarters to learn more about the concert. 


VEER: Can you remind us how the City Center Encore organization came about and how “Chicago” came to debut in 1996?

Fisher: Encores was a mutual idea between me, Judith Daykin, and Ted Chapin, who ran a Rodgers & Hammerstein organization at the time.  

Judith and I had done concerts together at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Ted Chapin and I had done some concert musicals in the 1980s with the New Amsterdam Theater Company. 

Judith had just come to City Center and wanted musical theater to have a presence there because it was an important component in the 1950s and ‘60s. We decided concert musicals would be the way to go. 

By the third season (1996) it was doing really well and it is going gangbusters now. 

“Chicago” didn’t actually fit with our mission, which was performing neglected musicals that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.

Our artistic director, Walter Bobbie, who directed the show, had decided he was going to leave after two years — he did the second and third season — so this was his going away present to himself — to direct this (“Chicago”). 

At that point we didn’t think of anything we were doing as potentially having an extended life. I’ve known (composer) John Kander for a long time. He and (lyricist) Fred Ebb came to our first dress rehearsal. They were supportive and let us do whatever we needed to do; turn it more into a concert. They were as blown away as we were when the crowds went crazy at the beginnings of numbers and standing ovations at the end.  I’ve never seen anything as consistently emotional as that was. People were really hungry for it. 

The luckiest producers in the world showed up and decided to move it to Broadway that fall. 

Even then we thought maybe it will make it to the Tonys next May.

It was a concert version of a musical.

At that time we were still living in those imported musicals like “Phantom” and “Les Miz” that were very much about the set and the cast could be interchangeable. Ours didn’t have a set and was very much about the individuals in the cast. John and Fred built the show so the characters could engage with the audience. 

Celebrity getting you off the hook for criminal activities never goes out of style, and it’s very much in style now. 

When we opened it was around the time of the OJ Simpson trial. There’s always someone trying to use their celebrity to get above the law. 

It’s still doing incredible business this year on Broadway. We have our first drag queen Momma Morton, and people really want to see that. 


VEER: Can you share some of the differences between the Broadway musical version of Chicago verses the concert?  Are there short skits and dancing as part of the concert version? Costuming of the lead characters/singers?

Fisher: There’s no dancing. We don’t have the rights to the dancing. 

That was one of the things just to differentiate it.

This is such a different experience. It’s really the score played by a symphony orchestra, and that’s the big thing nobody can touch but us. 

We very much had the input of John Kader in how we put it together. It is his wishes. He always thought it would benefit from the symphonic treatment. And we managed to make it so five singers could represent the show. And they are amazing. They have to back each other up sometimes. 

It’s somewhere between a radio show version; an oratory version. But the full story is there. It’s slightly different storytelling.

Momma Morton does a lot of the narrating to get us from place to place, but it’s the whole score.

The audience goes crazy. They’re often singing along. And they know what’s coming, and it is a new way to hear it.


VEER: Are the songs in chronological order as they are in the theatrical work and is the performance done in two acts?

Fisher: Yep.


VEER: Who is playing or singing the part of Roxy?

Fisher: Bianca Marroquin. I can’t remember if she’s done it (“Chicago”) more than 5,000 times. 

She’s a bilingual girl from the border with Mexico. She grew up south of the border, but went to school everyday in the US.

Brilliant dancer. 

There was that miniseries about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon a couple of years ago. She played Cheetah Rivera in that series. She’s at that level. She’s actually on Broadway at the moment playing Roxy, but she’s going to come to us for this. 

Lana Gordon, who’s going to play Velma, was doing “Chicago” on Broadway last week and has gone into “Hadestown” this week. She’ll be taking time from that to come see us.

Lewis Cleale has not done the show except for me in these concerts. He has this gorgeous rich baritone voice. He’s been in “Book of Mormon” since the very beginning, so they’re giving him time off to see us.

Tari Kelly: I’ve done work with her on several shows. We did a show with the (Virginia) Symphony 10 or 12 years ago when the tall ships were coming in. She has often played Velma in our concerts, but is going to be Momma for us in this one.

Matthew Deming is one of the few humans in the world that can sing both Mary Sunshine and Amos Hart. He has a beautiful baritone and soprano. There aren’t many of them.


VEER: The most famous song from “Chicago” is “All That Jazz.” What in your view makes that such an outstanding melody for a Broadway musical?

Fisher: It’s unusual in that there’s a gap in each phrase that can be moved around. Nobody has the right term for it.

“You’re the Top,” the Cole Porter song, starts with a little gap.

Some of it is harmonic. 

He (John Kander) leaned into the 1920s for this (“Chicago”). He leans into some Kurt Vile references, and those are both real ear-catching ways to go. 

It’s also the way its structured and delivered in the show. 

John Kander is famous for his vamps. People have made fun of the vamps; they’ve done whole skits about the vamps. But this show has a bunch of great ones, and that is a great vamp. 



Chicago The Musical in Concert

May 6

Chrysler Hall