Harrison brings a veteran's savvy to the Lyric stage

He's Billy Flynn in the touring `Chicago'

Stage: theater, music, dance

October 23, 2003|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

He is probably best known as the hunky young doctor on the '70s television series Trapper John, M.D. But unlike many stars from that era who are rarely seen except in syndication, Gregory Harrison has kept his career from fading to black.

A savvy entertainment chameleon, the actor/producer/director has stayed busy with cable and network television projects, feature films, regional theater and Broadway.

His latest turn? A starring role in the smash musical Chicago, which opens in Baltimore next week at the Lyric Opera House.

"For years, I've been toying with the idea of the show," says Harrison, speaking by phone from Toronto, a stop on the national company's tour. "But six months ago, I had another idea, a two-character play. When the leading lady postponed, my agent in New York called me about this. The timing was perfect. I said, `Sign me up.'"

Chicago is a jazz-infused, stylish, exhilarating song-and-dance explosion about two 1920s Windy City murderesses who become media celebrities.

Harrison plays Billy Flynn, the slick, fast-talking lawyer who defends each woman. Many of the show's seasoned cast members (notably Brenda Braxton as Velma and Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart) hail straight from Broadway.

The story is based on actual news accounts from the Chicago Tribune, which reporter Maurine Watkins later spun into a comedy that reached Broadway in 1926.

In 1975, legendary choreographer/director Bob Fosse bought the book rights and assembled a stellar cast that included Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.

The current revival opened in 1996 and is now the longest running Broadway revival to date. Such actresses as Bebe Neuwirth have helped the show win six Tony awards and a Grammy for its cast recording.

The immense success of Chicago on stage spawned the 2002 Academy Award-winning film, with Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger, Queen Latifah and Richard Gere.

"It's a great show, a whole lot different from the movie," says Harrison. "It's sexy and fast-paced like a locomotive. I jump on and ride it to the end."

But he says that ride won't include mimicking Gere's portrayal of the pivotal character.

"Richard is No. 48 in a long list of Billys. I am maybe 50," he explains. "They've been black, white, young and old. It's not so much a question of my imprint, but pleasing the audience."

Harrison, who sings and plays guitar but admits he isn't a big-time dancer, has sought to please audiences for decades on stage.

A veteran of musical theater, he was "discovered" performing in a regional play in San Francisco, when the producers of Trapper John noticed him and fellow castmate Brian Stokes Mitchell and plucked them from obscurity.

Mitchell would go on to become a popular Broadway performer and Tony winner. In 1997, Harrison made his own debut on the Great White Way in Steel Pier, from Kander and Ebb, the team behind Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

More recently he co-starred with Blythe Danner and Treat Williams in the critically acclaimed revival of Follies. Along the way there have been hundreds of other theatrical productions, many done through the award-winning Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles. For a decade or so until the early 1990s, the theater operated under the aegis of Catalina Productions, which Harrison co-founded more than 20 years ago.

Today, the company (named after his childhood island home in California) continues to develop and produce top-rated movies-of-the-week, such as Au Pair for the Family Channel and First Daughter for TBS. Harrison has had recurring roles on television series including Ed and Judging Amy.

"I love mixing it up, doing projects that I personally love," says Harrison, who at age 53 isn't much interested in being a Hollywood sex symbol anymore.

"That [hunk] perception puts you in a niche. I've spent a career trying to get out of that typecasting, doing theater and real acting roles so I can have a fulfilling career."

When he's not working, Harrison lives off the coast of Oregon with his wife of 22 years and their four children. The oldest leaves for college soon.

A little golf, chasing waves, a good life.

"It's far from Hollywood," he says. "And I like that."

Chicago will play the Lyric Opera House Tuesday through Nov. 2 for eight performances. Show times are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Nov. 1, 2 p.m. Nov. 1 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2. Tickets, $38 to $73, are on sale through Tickets.com at 866-597-4200 (866-LYRIC00), at the Lyric Opera House box office or online at www.tickets.com.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 45.

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