Wednesday, March 3, 1999 | 9:16 a.m.
Where is Chicago?
For Mandalay Bay, it's where Las Vegas intersects with Broadway.
The smart and sultry musical starring Broadway stalwarts Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera and Ute Lemper debuts in the plush 1,700-seat Mandalay Bay Theatre tonight as part of the hotel's grand opening.
If confidence, high spirit and general goodwill are the production's barometer for success, "Chicago" is already a winner.
"This is a very big honor for me and I think this will be a brilliant show," said Lemper, who joined the cast at the behest of producers Barry and Fran Weissler and will play the role of Velma Kelly for four weeks before returning to New York. "I really am proud to be a part of bringing this type of entertainment and culture to Las Vegas.
"This is real, theater culture. This is not a fast-food show."
Embracing what they hope will start an irreversible trend of full-scale Broadway productions in Las Vegas, the stars of "Chicago" have faith that a casino audience will gladly pay $45 to $90 to watch a live 2 1 2/ hour stage performance.
"It makes sense to go in that direction," Lemper said. "I don't know the mentality of people who like to gamble, if it's more like a sport as a form of entertainment. But I think it's unfair to put people who come to Las Vegas in a single drawer and label it.
"This is part of the city's metropolitan culture, and it's part of the growing of the city."
Lemper was added to a production already brimming with Broadway credentials -- "Chicago" garnered seven Tony Awards for its scaled-back 1996 revival -- with Rivera playing the lead female role, Roxie Hart.
Rivera -- exuding tireless spunk and spark at 66 -- appeared in the original productions of "West Side Story," "Bye Bye Birdie," and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." She performed in the original 1975 production of "Chicago," taking on the Velma Kelly role while Gwen Verdon (and, later, Tony award-winning choreographer Ann Reinking) played Roxie Hart.
The show's satirical storyline centers around a Chicago murder case involving Hart, who has offed her boyfriend and becomes a sort of cult hero with the help of ostentatious attorney Flynn (Vereen), whose act brings to mind the worst qualities of Johnnie Cochran.
"It has been said and written that the story was far ahead of its time," Rivera said. "I think that is true to an extent, and I think that's one reason it has stood the test of time so well. That, and the performers."
The original story was written in the mid-'20s by police reporter Mauring Dallas Watkins and based on real murder case in Chicago. It was made into the 1928 film of the same name and remade during World War II as "Roxie Hart," starring Ginger Rogers.
"We will have a chance to bring both fantasy and reality with this show," Rivera said. "The way it moves, the music and the dancing, is like a fantasy in a way. But it's also a very real experience, and live theater will always be a very genuine form of entertainment."
Rivera did admit to an acute case of "the willies" in anticipation of the opening, and was so wrapped up in rehearsal she barely had time to consider the show's long-term prospects.
Until about a week ago.
"I was so busy, and when you're hard at work you don't get a feel for what people might accept and expect," Rivera said. "But here we are, right on top of it, and I'm starting to feel some pressure. Really, the reason I'm here is I wanted to be a part of enticing people into this wonderful theater."
Vereen says he gained spiritual and creative inspiration after surviving being run down by a car in Malibu, Calif., in 1992.
"I'm lucky to be here doing this. I'm blessed," Vereen said. "I'm lucky and blessed to be anywhere, doing anything. I discovered a lot about modern technology and medicine, and about severe injuries, but the most important thing I learned is the power of prayer. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the spiritual power of prayer."
Familiar to Las Vegas showrooms, Vereen most recently performed here in 1996, headlining at the Tropicana hotel for two nights. He and Rivera performed at the Desert Inn in September 1994.
Vereen has recently noted his frustration with performing abbreviated, 90-minute shows.
"The talent in Las Vegas has always been on display, that was never the problem," he said. "I've been fortunate to work with Chita and Juliet Prowse, God bless her, but you couldn't reach the ultimate level of performance for an audience in a short show. The productions weren't like what we have here, and we have this wonderful theater built especially for this type of 2 1 / 2-hour experience."
Lemper, whose stage career has included extensive cabaret and recording musical work throughout Europe and North America, said she's tried to bring an edge to the role of Kelly, Hart's imprisoned friend.
"Contemporary theater, for me, is an escape," Lemper said. "I like dramatic pieces that are silent, desperate, subtle with a psychological edge. This gives me a chance to bring that to my character instead of having her just being shot out of a canon doing a number."
Vereen, who won a Tony Award for best actor in "Pippin," compares "Chicago" to some of his television work, which includes playing Chicken George in "Roots."
"There is spirituality in this room you can't get on television," Vereen said, gesturing toward the Mandalay Bay Theatre stage. "You have a remote control with television, always ready to change the channel. With this, you leave the remote control attitude at home."