Playing a baby-faced, anatomically impossible cartoon character known mostly for her eye wink, center-parted hairstyle, and five-word catchphrase, Jasmine Amy Rogers gives a surprisingly fleshed-out performance. “Boop! It opened its pre-Broadway run at Chicago’s CIBC Theater on Wednesday before an audience that included singer Katharine McPhee and, more unexpectedly, Bill Gates. Boop-oop-a-doop!
Rogers will be a shining new star as Betty Boop in this latest show directed by Jerry Mitchell, the last of the master’s hugely polished musicals to open in this city before Broadway, a modest-scale, family-oriented show with plenty to like. and there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially in the wildly uneven Act 2.
Rogers is already the full Broadway package: a star vocalist in David Foster and Susan Birkenhead’s sumptuous score, a subtle comedic natural when it comes to Bob Martin’s book, and, most of all, a warmly centered and vulnerable performer who humanizes. He’s the main character of a show that hasn’t yet surrounded itself with enough facts for this director and choreographer’s signature emotional arc to do its best. Mitchell is a talent scout with tremendous skills, and Rogers is a find neither he nor Broadway will soon forget.
It presented a relatively blank slate for Betty Boop, considering that she only appeared in Max Fleischer’s short films and that her peak in the 1930s (the decade in which she portrayed everything from a trapeze artist to Snow White to the owner of a traveling medicine show) . Martin. In her book, which references “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Back to the Future” and “Barbie”, she suggests that Betty is bored with the daily grind of the movie studio and longs for a vacation. Thanks to a time machine built by his frequent co-star Grampy, he finds himself in New York in 2023; He befriends needy Trisha, first at Comic Con (where a cartoon character must fit in) and then throughout Manhattan. teenage superfan (played by the stunning 16-year-old Angelica Hale) and falling in love with Dwayne (Ainsley Anthony Melham) and even getting involved in politics. Trisha’s mother, Carol (Anastacia McCleskey), works for sleazy cop Raymond (Erich Bergen), who is running for mayor.
After its out-of-town tryout in San Francisco, “Wicked” rolled back all scenes that did not include the famous two leading ladies and “Boop!” should take a leaf from this successful playbook. Betty is so empathetic and intriguing that things start to get complicated every time she leaves the stage. Job One here is to elevate the supporting comedy characters to the realistic material level of the leading lady, especially the important Grampy (Stephen DeRosa), who is in a completely different musical than the Betty who falls in love with the modern-day Valentina. (Prince of Faith, no less). Grandma laughs very little, and DeRosa, a respected talent, seems trapped in a sense of comedy that doesn’t work. Prince is, as you’d expect, both enigmatic and funny when and where the material allows, but his role and the entire B-plot prove emotionally draining. There could be so much more.
The series begins in the 1930s in black and white, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the behind-the-scenes characters talked straight as if they were in a Betty Boop cartoon and didn’t; It would be much better for the series if they were honest creatures of their own age, which would be enough of a contrast. The first episode plays out too quickly (which is true of most of the series, really) and fails to fully flesh out Betty’s wants, needs, and cartoon spirit. From there we go to the present day and color with Betty and it will be much better to get used to the new reality; the current gradual transition ruins the potential surprise of what turns out to be a very attractive scenic design by David Rockwell. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are gorgeous, and both the lighting (by Philip S. Rosenberg) and sound (Gareth Owen) are top-notch; The sonic contrast with some other shows in town is palpable.
Much of what goes on in today’s New York is extremely enjoyable to watch; With lots of stranger-on-a-stranger entertainment offered by Martin, especially when Dwayne and Betty go to a club downtown where Betty performs her real jazz music. age self. It’s a very clever, if extremely rushed, scene, and a perfect match for Foster’s sumptuous and superbly orchestrated score. Given the talent of the actors portraying the lovers and Mitchell’s unique skills in theatrical romance, very little stage time is devoted to this story. Instead, the self-actualizing Betty gets entangled first with an evil mayoral candidate (she’s a janitor, cranking out the kind of jokes that couldn’t be a worse match for the show’s otherwise classy gestalt) and then with her morally superior campaign manager. who takes over – but Betty never spends any meaningful time with him, so his support doesn’t get much of a follow-up.
The scenes that work, and definitely do, are the ones where Mitchell works his signature magic: the romantic moments; Betty befriends one of her fans, Taylor Swift’s style; homage to New York City’s chaotic sense of beauty; A celebration of inclusive love. I think all of these moments are strong enough here that the “Boop!” It’ll come in handy when you keep Betty at the center of everything. The other filler it needs to succeed is richer existential contemplation, the kind that gives you goosebumps, and Martin excelled in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The work needs to focus more on the difference between being a caricature figure drawn by others who has no single story, and being a real woman who finds a real voice; the emotional possibilities are endless there.
Foster’s music is undoubtedly more uniform in style than the typical Broadway song suite, but this songwriter’s wheelhouse is mine and will be that of many mainstream ticket buyers, and this show has a set of sticky numbers that the target audience can understand. I’ll love it, including the Act 1 closer, “Where I Want to Be,” the 11 o’clock number, “Something to Shout About,” and the sweet poem “Sunshine.” I’d throw another one in the star’s direction, especially considering she looked like she could handle anything, at that jazz club.
Except maybe actually sticking to the slogan itself. No need to be afraid; it’s a reference point, and Rogers should “oop” and “doop” with excitement and pride.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Boop! The Musical” (3.5 stars)
When: until December 24
Where: CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Working time: 2 hours 25 minutes
Tickets: $28-$106 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com