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Bianca is Roxie

photo by Paul Kolnik

Chicago returns to Shea's

Bianca Marroquin is fabulous. You may not have heard of her, but trust me, she is truly fabulous. You can see her when she returns to Buffalo to star as Roxie Hart in the national touring company of Chicago opening at Shea’s on Tuesday.

Chicago is the Kander and Ebb musical about Roxie Hart, a housewife who murders her lover in jazz era Chicago, then uses the notoriety to launch a vaudeville career. Along the way she teams up with fellow murderess Velma Kelly. Both are helped through the legal system and media frenzy by crooked lawyer Billy Flynn.

The show originally starred Gwen Verdon as Roxie, Chita Rivera as Velma, and Jerry Orbach as Billy back in 1975. The current revival started in 1996 and has been going great guns ever since. Chicago was made into a successful film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002, and spawned successful productions all over the world. There have been productions in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Austria, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, China, Australia, Singapore, Poland, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.

Marroquin was the star of the Mexican company. She is one of the very few Mexican performers to cross over to star in a Broadway musical. Sure, Lupe Vélez worked for Ziegfeld, and Anthony Quinn was Zorba, and Ricardo Montalban did Seventh Heaven and Jamaica, but that’s about it. Even Silvia Pinal, who went from Buñuel movies to become the Mexican Dolly, Mame, and Mama Rose, has never starred on Broadway.

Bianca Marroquin has.

Bianca Marroquin (photo by Paul Kolnik)

It all came about in a surprising and unlikely way. The producers have been keeping the current revival going with some pretty clever casting changes. After Anne Reinking, the litany of replacement Roxies has included Charlotte D’Amboise, Sandy Duncan, Marilu Henner, Melanie Griffith, Robin Givens, Karen Ziemba, and Brooke Shields. After Bebe Neuwirth, Velma has been played by Jasmine Guy, Britain’s Ruthie Henshall, and Germany’s Ute Lemper. Billy has seen even more replacements from Brent Barrett to Hinton Battle, to Taye Diggs, to Louis Gossett, Jr., to Michael C. Hall, to George Hamilton (yes, really), to John Schneider, to Alan Thicke, to Tom Wopat, to Usher, to Jerry Springer (again—really), to Buffalo’s own Eric Jordan Young. And there have been Matron Mama Morton’s aplenty—at Shea’s the role will be taken by the irresistible and wonderful Carol Woods.

In 2002, when another actress suddenly became unavailable, Broadway was abruptly in need of a Roxie. With a casting emergency on their hands, the producers remembered that the Mexico City star was bilingual.

Enter Bianca Marroquin.

“I learned the English lyrics and dialogue in three weeks,” she reveals, speaking by telephone from her home in New Jersey. “The show was exactly the same and I had worked so hard, that I was letter perfect. But what is funny in Spanish is not necessarily what is funny in English. At my first performance, I was thrown off when the audience laughed in different places! But I adjusted quickly and was fine after that!”

She could now say that she had starred on Broadway and she used the experience wisely.

“When I was first asked to join the New York company,” says Marroquin, “the idea was always that I could return to Mexico City and be billed as a Broadway star. Finally, this year, six years later, I returned to Mexico City to star at Maria in The Sound of Music [La Novicia Rebelde]. I did every interview I could, every television show, every personal appearance, and it was wonderful!”

Other international performers have made their Broadway debuts in Chicago. In fact, Marroquin’s co-star, Terra C. MacLeod, who also returns to Shea’s to play Velma, originated the role in the Montreal and Paris productions before joining the Broadway company in 2004.

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Marroquin was raised on the border between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas. When she was a child, her father sent her to school in Brownsville. As a result she speaks both Spanish and English perfectly. Unless they read the program carefully, Broadway audiences would have no idea that the star of the show did not grow up in Connecticut.

Marroquin studied dance from the time she was a little girl, and while she dreamed of becoming a dancer, her father insisted that she go to college. She enrolled in college in Monterrey as her siblings had done, and decided to major in communication.

Fate would intervene. Marroquin saw a flyer publicizing regional auditions for the Mexican production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Without telling her parents, she went to the audition. To her horror, she arrived late and was told that the auditions for women were over. She was crestfallen until they told her she could audition with the men. She seized her chance, danced her best against the hopeful Gaston’s, and was selected to travel to Mexico City to audition for the show’s creators.

The moment of truth had arrived. She would have to tell her family. Young and inexperienced, Marroquin felt intimidated that the other girls were dressed like actresses. She was dressed modestly. And yet, when the producers asked her why she wanted to be in the show, just like in a Mexican soap, her modesty was rewarded. She exclaimed that this was the dream of a lifetime, and that it would even mean leaving her family. Impressed by her talent and enchanted by her Gwen Verdon-esque vulnerability, enthusiasm, and charm, Disney cast her in the ensemble.

Quickly, directors noticed that even when she was dressed as a dancing spoon, Marroquin’s dancing and effervescent personality drew the eye. After Beauty and the Beast, she was selected for Mexico City productions of Rent and Phantom of the Opera, before finally being cast as Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Since her Broadway success, Marroquin and her husband have settled in New Jersey. The opportunities to perform in musical theater are just greater in New York.

Having seen her in Chicago, I was startled when she showed up in the Harry Connick, Jr. revival of The Pajama Game in a minor role.

“Musicals are created in New York and in London,” observes Marroquin. “While I had stepped into shows that had already been created, I had never had the experience of working in a new production as it was built from scratch. I wanted that experience, and honestly, I felt I needed to pay those dues. At first I wanted to play Gladys, but they chose someone else. When they offered me Carmen, the ethnic girl, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I got to work with [prominent Broadway director/choreographer] Kathleen Marshall and with Harry Connick, Jr.; I got to perform at the Tony Awards, and I enjoyed every minute of that experience, and the friends I made have become very important to me.”

For now, Marroquin is enjoying her return to the national tour of Chicago. The show will run at Shea’s from Tuesday until Sunday. In addition to Terra C. MacLeod, others in the cast include Tom Hewitt, who appeared in the original off-Broadway production of Jeffrey, as well as the revival of Rocky Horror and in Dracula with Buffalo’s Stephen McKinley Henderson; and Debra Walton, who wowed audiences at Studio Arena Theatre a few years ago with her Katharine Cornell Award winning performance in Cookin’ at the Cookery. For tickets call 1-800-745-3000.