Performing Arts

For Bianca Marroquin, ‘Chicago’ is a second home

Bianca Marroquin (center) plays murderess Roxie Hart in the production of “Chicago” coming to the Kauffman Center this week. She also played the role at Starlight in 2004 and 2009.
Bianca Marroquin (center) plays murderess Roxie Hart in the production of “Chicago” coming to the Kauffman Center this week. She also played the role at Starlight in 2004 and 2009. Theater League

Roxie Hart is back. And so is Bianca Marroquin.

The touring production of “Chicago” that blows into the Kauffman Center this week marks the third local performance by Marroquin as Roxie, one of two sexy murderesses in the Kander & Ebb musical about corruption and media frenzies in the Windy City during the Roaring ’20s. And it’s at least the fourth time a touring production of the long-running Broadway revival has come to town.

Twice before, in 2004 and 2009, Marroquin performed the show at Starlight Theatre, an experience she still speaks of with a tone of wonder as she recalls the vast 8,000-seat venue and gnats getting stuck to her lip gloss.

This time she’ll be in the refined, climate-controlled Muriel Kauffman Theatre, an 1,800-seat house where most viewers have a relatively intimate viewing experience.

Joining her on this tour as killer Velma Kelly is Terra C. MacLeod, who appeared in the show with Marroquin at Starlight in 2009. John O’Hurley (J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”) plays glib lawyer Billy Flynn. Like Marroquin, MacLeod and O’Hurley have appeared in the Broadway production repeatedly.

The Internet Broadway Database lists 12 separate engagements by Marroquin in the Broadway production, which ranks as the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. It’s also the longest-running revival. Indeed, only one musical has run longer: that British perpetual-motion machine called “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Marroquin has been in and out of “Chicago,” both in New York and on tour, so often that she considers the show a blessing. Sometimes she has left to do other things — to act in telenovelas in Mexico or to be a judge on “Mira Quien Baila” on Univision, a Spanish-language show similar to “Dancing With the Stars.” But she knows she can always step into Roxie’s black leotards and high-heel dance shoes one more time.

“It’s a nice relationship,” she said recently. “They (the producers) are very loyal, and they always let me come back and do it. It’s nice to know I have my role of Roxie Hart still waiting for me. I’ve had many blessings, but the biggest blessing of my life is ‘Chicago.’”

“Chicago” has had a remarkable history. The fact that it has become a record-breaking hit and toured repeatedly to places like Kansas City puts it at odds with a lot of hit shows: It’s sexy, smart and aimed at grown-ups. There’s no elaborate scenery. Nobody flies above the stage. It’s not based on a movie. It’s not based on a fairy tale. There are no witches, no lovable ogres. In other words, it does not pander to emotional infantilism.

The show developed by Bob Fosse with lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander (a Kansas City native) is a cynical vaudeville that tells the story of two female killers who become media stars. It is based on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a former newspaper reporter who based her fictional account on a couple of real murder cases in Chicago. In the musical, newspapers are depicted as fickle and hollow, the judicial system as malleable and vulnerable to cash-fueled influence.

The Kander & Ebb show opened on Broadway in 1975. It was directed and choreographed by Fosse and starred Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn, Gwen Verdon as Roxie and Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly. It ran for more than 900 performances, which was quite respectable. Reviews were mixed. Some scribes apparently were uncomfortable with the show’s cynical take on celebrity culture.

But nobody could have predicted what would happen when the show was revived in 1996. Suddenly the material’s cynicism seemed perfectly in step with the country’s zeitgeist. It was directed by Walter Bobbie, and the opening-night cast included James Naughton, Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, who also choreographed in the Fosse style. They all eventually left the show. But they were succeeded by others — many others — as the production continued running. As of last week, “Chicago” had clocked more than 7,500 performances on Broadway.

In 2002, the film version, directed by Rob Marshall, was released. It was a hit — Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger starred — and far from diluting the theater audience, the film’s popularity simply fueled enthusiasm for the Broadway show.

That’s also the year Marroquin was invited to join the Broadway company after playing Roxie in the Mexico City premiere of the Spanish-language version.

Her move to the New York show was historic — the first time an actress had transferred from a production in a language other than English to the Broadway version.

Marroquin was born in Monterrey but grew up in Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Like many others, she crossed over every morning to go to school on the American side.

“I would cross every morning … and then go home and eat lunch,” she said. “Normally you would cross two or three times a day. The house where I lived was five blocks from the border.”

She took dance lessons — modern, ballet, flamenco — and had her heart set on moving to Spain so she could continue flamenco training. But she stayed in Mexico and majored in communications at her father’s insistence. After a couple of years of school in Monterrey, without telling anyone her plan, she decided to audition for the first Mexican production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” She was hired and began what turned out to be a unique career path — almost as unique as the path followed by “Chicago.”

“So when I got it I told my parents,” she said, “and then they found out how much they were going to pay and that I was the only one from Monterrey. I was 20. And I told them, ‘If you don’t support me, I’ll do it on my own.’ I was the youngest one in the company.”

To reassure themselves, her parents traveled to Mexico City and met with producers’ representatives.

“They were told it was the start of a whole new era for musical theater in Mexico,” she said. “I never came back to finish my studies.”

Marroquin subsequently landed roles in the Mexican premieres of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent.” Then came the Mexico City production of “Chicago.” At 25, she became the youngest actress to play Roxie Hart. Then she was invited to join the Broadway company.

The audience for musical theater continues to grow in Mexico, she said. Last August she completed a 10-month run of the first Spanish-language production of “Mary Poppins.”

Marroquin said she planned to stay with the current “Chicago” tour through late March and then take time off to record a collection of songs from the 1970s and ’80s. There will be two versions of the album, one in Spanish and one in English. She loves “Chicago” but she said she’s looking forward to a break from performing eight shows a week.

Marroquin has enjoyed good fortune in her career. But she also feels a certain responsibility.

“I’m very aware that it’s a very unique and privileged life,” she said. “And I know my following — a lot of young girls — are looking up to me. Perhaps I can be an inspiration and motivation for other people. It’s not only a personal success and not just my country’s success, but a success for Latin people.”

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Opening Tuesday

“Chicago” opens Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and runs through Jan. 25. For more information, call 816-994-7222 or go to TheaterLeague.com.

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