Hip to be Flynn

Huey Lewis returns to Bay Area in ‘Chicago’

After fronting one of the seminal pop bands of the 1980s, selling more than 20 million albums and touring the world more than a satellite, a little thing like stage fright leaves your system.

Unless that stage, of course, is onBroadway.

Yes, for all its ups and downs, smash hits and dreadful flops, Broadway still has the power to intimidate Huey Lewis, singer, actor and, these days, one of the renowned avenue’s brightly lit stars.

Calling from a cell phone while driving around Canada, the pop star says he still has his fair share of nerves about reprising his role as Billy Flynn in the touring production of Chicago, opening Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.

“I really didn’t know I could actually do that,” he said, reflecting upon his first run as the infamous singing lawyer in 2005, when Lewis made his official Broadway debut in the 10-years-and-counting revival of the 1975 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theater in New York City.

And that probably explains why the first time the role of Flynn was offered to the 56-year-old rocker, Lewis politely, but very flatly, said no.

“It was just daunting to me,” said Lewis, who added that interest in having him head up several other Broadway revivals had already come and gone, ending with Lewis’ declining all offers.

Then, while visiting his son, a student at New York University, Lewis saw “Chicago” for himself and immediately changed his mind.

He knew he could sing. He knew he could act, given his more recent film accomplishments (“Duets,” “Shortcuts”). But did he think he could dance? Especially in a production choreographed by the masterful Bob Fosse?

It’s still an area that clearly rattles Lewis’ veteran nerves and clearly something he’s not sure he ever can and will master, deciding a sense of humor about the whole thing is a must.

In fact, Lewis has praise for nearly everyone he can think to name who had a hand in his induction to Broadway.

His admiration for the cast is obvious, as it is for the world of live theater. “The talent to humility ratio is huge,” he said.

And he knows they are the ones who got him through that first night, Oct. 31, 2005, when Lewis enjoyed his first solo spotlight ever on a Broadway stage.

How did it feel?

“I don’t know how I felt except ‘Thank God it’s over!’” he said. “Then I immediately started worrying about the second show.”

As production’s 31st Billy Flynn, Lewis also has had the task of trying to decide how his incarnation of the seedy lawyer will leave its respective mark on the libretto of history.

Lewis decided his interpretation of the character would keep as close to the original text as possible.

“This guy’s role was very well-written, period. It’s written as it’s supposed to be,” he said.

Lewis joins the national touring production of “Chicago” for all but two performances of the show’s three-week run. The Bay Area native will then return to Broadway to play Flynn from Nov. 20 to Jan. 14, 2007.

Lewis will also take part in “Chicago’s” 10-year anniversary performance Nov. 14.

Though there is a good chance Lewis will garner a warm welcome from his hometown, he’s keeping his expectations, if any, on the down low.

“All I know is that it will be different. It’s a different cast and a different theater. I expect it to be different,” he said. “Will it be good? Well, the jury’s still out on that. But why not? Yeah, it’ll be good.”

Stage preview

Chicago

When: Opens Tuesday and plays through Nov. 5

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $25 to $85

Info: Call (415) 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com

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