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Brandy Brings Soulful Showmanship to ‘Chicago’

Critics have already weighed in on the show-stopping performance of Brandy Norwood, the R&B Grammy-winning singer and songwriter who has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, illustrating her talent both on television and Broadway, in her triumphant return to the stage as the nightclub dancer-turned-murderer, Roxie Hart, in the Tony Award-winning musical “Chicago.”

“Chicago” bears the distinction of being the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Set in 1920s Chicago, it’s a universal tale of fame, fortune and all that jazz with chock full of electrifying singing and dancing. And it never gets old or boring as each new cast brings their own flair and flavor to the stage.

Brandy, recast as one of the lead actors, started singing in a church choir under her father’s direction — a gospel singer and choir director. She signed her first contract at the age of 11 shortly after her family relocated from McComb, Mississippi, to Los Angeles. She lists her father, Willie Norwood, and Whitney Houston among her idols. Besides her many philanthropic endeavors, she has garnered numerous accolades including a Grammy Award, an American Music Award, seven Billboard Music Awards and, because of her distinctive sound, timbre, intricate riffs and almost perfect pitch, she’s earned the nickname “The Vocal Bible” by her critics and peers.

Brandy’s familiar with the play, having made her Broadway debut in 2015 in the same role that she again portrays. This time she shares the stage with Terra C. MacLeod (Velma Kelly) and a cast of veterans who as Time magazine says in describing the production, “[it] doesn’t just give us the old razzle-dazzle, it glows.”

The Mississippi-born Brandy, who first stole our hearts in 1994 with her self-titled debut album with songs like “I Wanna Be Down” and “Baby” both soaring to the top of the charts, then later scoring home runs with the song “The Boy is Mine” and the critically-acclaimed album “Afrodisiac” among other career achievements, sat down with The Washington Informer before the opening of “Chicago” to share the real deal about her life, her career and her plans now and in the future.

WI: How do you navigate your world and organize the many things you do?

Brandy: The theater taught me that you can’t get too ahead of yourself. You compartmentalize. Right now, all I’m thinking about is Roxie Hart and Roxie Hart alone. Everyone has a calendar — I try to stay in the moment as much as possible.

WI:  Your face has been seen so much by the public. Can you disappear into the crowd?

Brandy: Sure. I’m just a simple girl. I’m a star but I’m not a celebrity. I maneuver like a normal person. Everyone doesn’t know my beginnings, where I came from. I really love people and I really love my life. I love my daughter and we do normal stuff like go to the mall. I don’t feel like I live in a bubble. I know exactly what I’m here to do — it’s for service.

The celebrity thing — I don’t generally like fame like that. I don’t need the attention. I mean, it’s great when people notice my work and say positive things about my work. But I’m just a simple chick.

WI: It’s been a while since you’ve been on stage for a live production. Is it different this time? Do you ever get nervous? And do you think a Black woman playing a lead role originally written for a white woman says anything about how things have changed in America?

Brandy: I’m excited and really loved working on Broadway for the four months when I first starred in “Chicago.” I also did it on stage in L.A. I wanted that same feeling but coming here I was a little anxious. But when I got to the Kennedy Center, I got that same excitement as I did before on Broadway. This is a great venue, this is a powerful musical and the role of Roxie Hart is just as powerful.

Do I get butterflies before a show? All the time and I love them. The nerves are more like gifts — you have to face them to get to the other side. But guess what? On the other side, there’s greatness.

As for being an African-American woman in this role, hands down it’s just amazing. But I don’t think audiences see color — they see a beautiful cast coming together to tell this story. In art, we don’t see race or color, we just see art and I’m happy to be a part of that. Terri [her co-star] has made me step up my game because she’s so talented — so terrific. And it’s not about trying to upstage one another. It’s not about competition. It’s all about unity.

I guess I really enjoy working on stage because in my industry, in the music world, it’s not like that. Singing is where I express myself the most — it’s what I’ve always loved. But here, on stage, I get to show you three sides of me: singing, dancing, acting. I can’t wait to get on stage.

“Chicago” opened on April 4 at the Kennedy Center in Northwest and continues through Sunday, April 16.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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