Jeff McCarthy struts his stuff in touring "Chicago" at Proctors
In this touring show, the lead character, Billy Flynn, is played by local favorite Jeff McCarthy. In a recent telephone conversation, McCarthy said he's been on tour with "Chicago" "off and on for about 13 years. I've joined the company about eight or ten times and love it every time. This group of actors is especially delightful and talented. It's fun."
When not on tour McCarthy appears regularly in the Berkshires. This past summer season he played the title role of "Kunstler" at Barrington Stage Company (where he is also an associate-artistic director) and at Williamstown Theatre Festival he performed in the new musical "A Legendary Romance."
Though he thrives on the challenges of summer theater, he said he enjoys touring in "Chicago" "I love playing Billy," he said. "He's a fascinating character. Because the producers use a rotating cast for the three principle roles (Billy, Roxy and Velma) I also get time to pursue my individual projects and perform summers in the Berkshires."
McCarthy also feels that coming back to a role forces him to build some artistic muscle. "Each time I return I try to rethink the role and try to find something new in the character. Though he seems an obvious shyster, there's a lot more going on with the guy."
For those who might not be familiar with "Chicago," the Kander and Ebb musical is about two women — Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly — who commit murder and thanks to the work of their lawyer, Billy Flynn, become media celebrities. This public status sways judges and jury to make justice more favorable to them.
"The idea of different standards for celebrities makes the show really timely in a political sense. Audiences are really responding to the unfair sense of justice that favors the famous," McCarthy said. With a rueful laugh, he adds, "Well, not everywhere. The audiences in Canada really loved us, but in Wisconsin audiences were less enthusiastic and not very responsive to the material."
In his pursuit of providing Billy with some texture and shading, McCarthy looked to his role of William Kunstler. He admits it might be a stretch to compare the man who defended every radical activist of the 1960s with the shady Flynn. However, he says the process gives him insight to the importance of a lawyer. "It influences how I understand the power an attorney has in representing a client by influencing public opinion. Both were masters of manipulating the press and thus, public opinion."
He continued by saying, "Kunstler acted out of conscience and a devotion to the law. He risked public resentment by defending people who were despised by mainstream society. Flynn is getting rich by getting the guilty off, but I'd like to believe underneath his actions there is a respect for the legal system. He just manipulates it for different reasons."
He does point out a major difference: "Billy sings, dances and is a funny guy."
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