USHER'S NEXT STEP

Times Staff Writer

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.

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."

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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.

During a scene in which he argued with a stand-in handling the lead role of murderess Roxie Hart, for instance, her voice was sharp and strong, but his faded off in sections. He conceded as much. "I got here and we started rehearsing and I was like, 'Wow, you people are screaming,' but what it was is that they were just projecting, and I need to be able to do that. It's already gotten a lot better. But you know I grew up real soft-spoken, and that ain't going to get the job done here."

With all his charisma, 27-year-old Usher Raymond nevertheless will be the youngest man ever to perform as Billy in "Chicago," and even those tourists know a raw rookie when they see one, especially in a stage story that is defined by stinging the rubes.

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Different from the movie

"CHICAGO" began in a crime reporter's notebook. Back in the 1920s, Maurine Dallas Watkins was assigned by the Chicago Tribune to cover "sob sister" stories, like the trial of cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, whose car was found with her bullet-riddled lover and a bottle of gin in it. All of that lurid detail and sense of crime helped Watkins with her second career as a playwright. That in turn yielded a couple of films, "Chicago" in 1927 and, 20 years later, "Roxie Hart" starring Ginger Rogers. Its most notable life, however, began in 1975 with "Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville" by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Ebb, the Broadway musical that struggled at first but eventually became a signature name on Broadway.

The current revival began as a City Center Encores! concert staging in May 1996 and was so enthusiastically received that it landed on Broadway in November of that year. "The engine of the show," as producer Barry Weissler describes it, "is Billy Flynn. That's the role."

Jerry Orbach originated the part in '75 and, during this revival, a curious gallery of actors have donned Billy's shiny shoes, among them doo-wop rocker Huey Lewis, television variety man Wayne Brady and, right now, Obba Babatunde, who appears in the TV series "Half & Half" and is busy in films.

For folks who don't make it to Broadway often, Billy Flynn is defined, of course, by Richard Gere, the actor who starred opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger in the film "Chicago." The movie won the Oscar as the best picture of 2002, although some purists would grumble that Gere was long on charisma but short on actual singing and dancing prowess. When it comes to voice and feet, the gray-haired Gere cannot compete with Usher, but the twinkle and wrinkles of his eyes made him especially adept at playing the world-wise and mercenary counselor who can unlock the death-row gates as long as you can pay cash.

Usher could have chosen a younger, more contemporary-minded show, such as "Rent," but he says he picked this role precisely because of the wordcraft involved. And he picked "Chicago" because of his admiration for Fosse and his choreography, which is the canon that choreographer Ann Reinking is beholden to with this current production. "Fosse is amazing, just amazing," Usher said. "Sexy and sophisticated, a little dangerous and it's just wonderful."

The film "Chicago" was a spectacle of production design, and its huge scenes were packed with props, extras and gorgeous costumes of old Chicago. The stage production is stark and minimal. There are no costume changes, just a lot of skimpy black outfits and more fishnet than a wharf. There are a few chairs that sit on the side of the stage. And a gun. That is about it. Weissler's description sounds vaguely like an account by a firing squad witness.

"There's no costumes or scenery to hide behind. And the audience is right on top of you, it's an open arena. You can't even run upstage, the orchestra is right there behind you. You are on the stage naked. You succeed or you just have egg on your face."

The anything-can-happen element is exactly what Weissler is banking on. "People want to see Usher, they want see if he can do this, and when they see that he can, even more will come." The decade-old production has seen its ticket sales surge 30% since the announcement a few weeks ago of Usher's addition, and a new ad campaign has just kicked in. Weissler, of course, said he expects sellouts every night. He wouldn't say how much he is paying his star or whether Usher is the highest-paid Billy to date. "Usher is being paid very, very well. He's not making what he makes at one of his concerts, but he is being paid well."

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A cut in pay -- so what?

"THE problem with being famous," Usher said, "is everybody counts your money."

He wasn't smiling when he said that. He had just been asked how much of a pay cut he's taking by stepping away from pop music to do eight shows a week on Broadway through Oct. 1. The question is a bit rude, but the outspoken Usher is a man with his mind on money and money on his mind, so it seemed fair game. "I guess my answer is that no one does Broadway for the money."

Usher's business ambitions take a backseat only to his goals as an entertainer. It has given him a slightly odd career portfolio -- in 2004 he launched the first celebrity debit card with MasterCard, for instance. He is part owner of an NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. His resume also includes Coca-Cola jingles. Before "In the Mix," he already had film credits for roles in movies such as "The Faculty" and "She's All That," as well as a thick list of television appearances. After the stage run, he plans to hit the studio for a new album.

Since he started rehearsals for "Chicago" in late July, he's been living in an apartment in Times Square ("It's not easy to find, it's in a little pocket ... ") and he's stripped down his life considerably, more for reasons of focus than finance.

There's no entourage, no driver, and he has a Toyota Highlander in the city just in case he wants to bolt for a place where he can see tree lines like the ones back home in Atlanta. He has seen only one staging of "Chicago" -- that was weeks and weeks ago -- and he has not had time to drop in on any other productions in town. "You don't understand, this is all I do. This is all I can do. It's a lot of work. I don't go out really. I rehearse, I work out, I sleep."

At the start of rehearsals, he got a bad head cold, and the fatigue made it worse. He worried about exactly what he had signed up for and he got a little jittery, like a kid in boot camp. But as the days went by, he worked on his lines and learned the steps.

The director even decided to add a new solo dance sequence in "Razzle Dazzle" to give Usher a comfortable spot to show off his smooth moves. "And I learned to tap dance," he said proudly. Who was his teacher? "Nah. I taught myself."

Usher is a quick study, and during rehearsal with Hyslop, the stage manager, the singer repeats back his instructions on how quickly to cross the stage during an argument with another character. "If you go fast, at the end when you turn back around you really do it with snap." The singer tries, and Hyslop nods in approval. "Perfect."

Usher prides himself on being a self-made man, but his sense of history also makes him seek out counsel and do research. When he decided to take the "Chicago" role, he bought a DVD on Fosse and picked up the phone and called his mentor with the most Broadway experience: Ben Vereen.

The two came together at a studio in New York and discussed the pros and cons of the move. They have known each other for years, since Usher was a teen dating the performer's daughter, Caron, and passed along a videotape of himself singing. "He reminds me of myself at that age," Vereen said. "I had so much energy I kept running into walls. He calls me 'Dad' because I'm a godfather to him, and I think he's absolutely wonderful."

Wonderful, yes, but not perfect; Vereen winced when asked about Usher's movie "In the Mix." "He stepped away," Vereen said of the young star's work in the film. "Now he's doing the right thing. You have to go to the boards," he said, referring to the theater-world term for the stage. "All of this, it's not about impressing the industry, it's not impressing the establishment. It's about the self and the mysteries of life through challenge."

For his part, Usher said the most important advice he got from the 60-year-old Tony winner was a bit Zen.

"He said to be. He said stop acting and just find a way to be natural in what you are doing and the way you react to things." Usher chuckled and fidgeted with his hat. "You think, making, what, three movies now, someone would have mentioned that before."

The weeks ahead should have more lessons for the young singer. He has been warned about the New York stage critics ("Who knows what those people think or why? Nobody, not even them," Weissler jokes), the grueling pace of the daily dancing life, the inevitability of an off night, etc.

He shrugged it all off, twirled his cane and smiled.

"You know, when you're on tour with a concert, you kind of call the shots yourself. You can show up late sometimes and you can kind of do your own thing up. Now, with this, that's not the case. In some ways, I don't know exactly what to expect. But I'm here for all of it, that's the challenge. If you don't challenge yourself, no one will."

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.
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