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Usher's Next Step

The R&B superstar slides into a new guise: The show-tune-belting, Fosse-dancing role of Billy Flynn in `Chicago.' It's no slam dunk.

August 20, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE sweltering studio is like hundreds across Manhattan where dancers shape their bodies and careers. The floor is covered with shoe scuffs and strips of electrical tape used as stage marks. A mirror covers one entire wall. The only thing unusual thing about the studio, really, is the man reflected in that mirror. Hat low over his sweaty brow, pop superstar Usher is learning the steps of a Broadway rookie.

Watching the roll of his shoulders and gently twirling cane, he sings the Fred Ebb lyrics to one of the big numbers from the show "Chicago": "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle / Razzle dazzle 'em / Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it / And the reaction will be passionate."

The reflection looks good, but then again, a mirror never boos, does it? On Tuesday, Usher will step onto the stage of the Ambassador Theatre in the role of silver-tongued attorney Billy Flynn, the Depression-era dandy of death-row trials. The venue is relatively small -- the theater seats about 1,100 -- but the star and the stage are big.

Usher is famous as a music bestseller (his CD "Confessions" was the top title of 2004 and his career sales in the U.S. are closing in on 20 million albums), urbane sex symbol and perhaps the most exciting dancer in pop since Michael Jackson was first fitted for a sequined glove. But now the man James Brown has dubbed "the Godson of Soul" is taking his act to Broadway to test himself in a spotlight with an entirely different intensity. He has been rehearsing every day for weeks and he plainly takes the gig seriously, but sometimes that's not enough. Just ask Julia Roberts how the best of intentions can turn sour on the Great White Way.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Roxie Hart": A Sunday Calendar article about R&B singer Usher's Broadway debut in the musical "Chicago" incorrectly said that the Ginger Rogers movie "Roxie Hart" was made 20 years after the 1927 film version of "Chicago." It was made 15 years later.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
"Roxie Hart": An article last Sunday about R&B singer Usher's Broadway debut in the musical "Chicago" incorrectly said that the Ginger Rogers movie "Roxie Hart" was made 20 years after the 1927 film version of "Chicago." It was made 15 years later.

If Usher is nervous, he hides it well. "I want to do everything," he says, "because I can."

That raises a different question: Why would a man who can do anything decide to do this? The answer is a layered one. Usher has little to prove in pop music, where he has picked up five Grammys and filled arenas across the nation. But unlike many of his contemporaries, the singer has a sense of entertainment history, and his admiration for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Fred Astaire has fostered his desire to master every medium in sight. That's why Usher has tried to create a film career. Frankly, it hasn't gone well. His first starring role was last year in the ill-fated mob movie "In the Mix." It was sort of "the tenor meets the 'The Sopranos.' " He was not only savaged critically, but the movie also failed to connect commercially with his core of youthful fans.

Usher is a man of supreme confidence, and he will be the first to tell you so. But he will say it with a serene smile and a steady gaze that sometimes make him seem aloof. So the subject of failure is a tricky one, especially on the eve of this new high-wire venture. "You learn how hard it is to find the right part. They're not a dime a dozen, they're tough, man." Is this excursion to Broadway an effort to win over some of the naysayers who ridiculed "In the Mix"? "Yes. But I'm also doing it because it's a challenge, a challenge to myself."


Time to speak up

ABOUT an hour earlier, the rented fifth-floor room at Ripley-Grier Studios on 8th Avenue echoed with voices and piano. Usher was running through the courtroom scene with the show's dance captain, Gregory Butler, two other cast members, music director Leslie Stifelman and production stage manager David Hyslop. Plenty of Broadway shows have imported a famous name from some other medium, but it was instantly clear this time that the brand-name interloper in question could belt out a song and handle the footwork.

After Usher held one impossibly long note at the end of "Razzle Dazzle," the sinewy Butler shook his head and grinned in genuine admiration, and the other cast members paused to applaud. Butler said career Broadway performers are now accustomed to watching lesser singers and awful dancers step in with marquee billing because the tourists in town think it's pretty cool to see a movie star on stage. The industry resentments are well known, but Butler said that this time around, the cast is just as interested in watching the star as the out-of-towners who arrive at the Ambassador in shorts and sneakers.

"There's tremendous excitement in the company, I can tell you that," said Butler, captain since 1997. "And, yes, he's in a unique spot with this. He's at the peak of his career and done more than most people dream of, and he's stepping away from that to try this. It's a brave thing to do. And it will also teach him a lot when he goes back to doing concerts."

Usher has some things to work on. His singing is great -- strong, lively and spiked with appropriate attitude -- but when speaking, his lines were far quieter than the other actors and his syllables had too many soft corners for a character who is defined by his fast-talking sparkle and feint.

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