Razzle dazzle: Pamela Anderson takes back the narrative in Chicago

If you polled the audience at New York’s Ambassador Theater on Saturday night, there’s a good chance many were there to see one person: Pamela Anderson, the 90s icon who’s been having a moment this spring. The Playboy cover model turned Baywatch babe turned tabloid fodder made not only her Broadway but her stage debut last month as Roxie Hart, the canny murderess in Bob Fosse’s burlesque romp Chicago, for an eight-week run in the show’s 25-year strong revival.

The stunt casting served as somewhat of a tacit rejoinder to renewed attention on Anderson’s marriage to Motley Crue dummer Tommy Lee, and the sex tape marketed without their permission, brought on by the Hulu show Pam & Tommy. The eight-part limited series, released in March, stars Lily James as Anderson (wearing prosthetic breasts) and Sebastian Stan as Lee and reimagines the theft of their sex tape as gonzo pop culture history, complete with an animatronic penis and an in-vogue feminist revision of Anderson’s public shaming.

Anderson did not participate in the series, nor did she lend her support to its portrayal of what by all accounts was a traumatic violation of her privacy. There’s been much press about the show’s queasy (in my view) lack of consent and our collective interest in redeeming shamed women; sources have expressed her discontent, but Anderson has said nothing. Instead, she has returned to the spotlight for work, bending the redemption narrative arc her way. (Ticket sales jumped 9% during her first week.)

Pamela Anderson.
Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Chicago has a long history of stunt casting, and for good reason. The role of Roxie Hart – a woman who shoots her lover and tries to leverage her status as a celebrity criminal – can accommodate such Broadway interlopers as Ashlee Simpson, Brooke Shields and the Real Housewives’ Erika Jayne because it is fundamentally about misunderstood striving. Outside celebrity context only adds to the bit. Thus much of Anderson’s greenness – she’s open about learning to sing and dance for the job – can be folded into the role of Roxie, a fame-hungry nobody who dreams of vaudeville stardom. Anderson may not demonstrate great talent for singing (her voice is feathery and soft, at times difficult to hear even in the orchestra) or dancing (good enough), but she has what she needs: an unserious self-awareness and an excellent grasp on winking camp.

With her glittery side pout and exaggerated smirks – her face took on the most hyperbolic vaudeville mugs like wax puddy, and I mean that in a good way – Anderson appeared to be both playing the floozy and poking fun at her own image at the same time. Lines such as “I’m older than I ever intended to be” drew laughs, while “I can still have my own act” elicited cheers. The enormous wink she gave while singing “What if the world slandered my name?” could probably be seen from Times Square. (The audience, myself included, laughed.)

It helps that Broadway veteran Lana Gordon carries the burden of the show’s singing as star turned murderer Velma Kelly (and also appeared to enjoy sharing the spotlight with Anderson.) Freed up by an excellent cast in a revival that runs like a well-oiled machine, Anderson can afford to simply try her best. She may be new to Broadway but she’s working in familiar territory here – fluttering eyelids, ruby reds lips, a bustier that accentuates the contrast between her most famous assets and her tiny waist. Her Roxie Hart is a temptress, but one that’s putting on the show with a knowing eye toward the challenges of reputation and scandal, the balance of exploiting oneself and potential opportunities. “The story and my life are so parallel,” she told Vogue in March, while in rehearsals. “I always say … 30 years of therapy or just one Broadway show, then I’ll be fine.”

Since Pam & Tommy’s release, Anderson has promised to tell “the real story” of her life in a forthcoming memoir and authorized Netflix documentary. Until then, perhaps the best way to subvert what Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk called “the limits of the women’s redemption plot” is not to make a point about it, but to simply have a good time. In Chicago, Anderson seems to be doing that before an audience rooting for her – and thus we had fun, too.

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