Did you know Betty Boop has sold more merchandise than all the Kardashians combined? According to Meirav Devash (2017)of Allure Newsletter, that is the case. Even the Kardashians and Bella Hadid have been seen in Betty Boop apparel. To be fair, she has been around much longer and is undoubtedly more beloved. Max Fleischer, a pioneer American animator, created this sassy beauty icon almost a century ago. In 1930, Betty Boop began her cartoon animation as Bimbo, the dog’s poodle girlfriend. By 1931, her floppy ears had become hoop earrings, and she was transformed into a 1920s Jazz-Age flapper woman with a sexy, short, form-fitting, strapless, low-cut dress and visible garter. Her hairstyle was cropped with tight spit curls. She sported long dark lashes and pouty lips. She was scantily clad with all woman curves. She had an oversized head and a baby-like voice. Her spirit was and remains a brash, independent, sassy dame.
By 1932, she was so popular she became known as the “Queen of the Animated Screen.” She was never meant to be a child’s cartoon character. She was a figure for adult audiences who admired her big-hearted character despite her often questionable, not-quite-thought-out choices while battling the world and fate on her adventures, playing every role but unsure of who she really is.
Tony Award-winning Director Jerry Mitchell, Director/Choreographer recipient of three Tony Awards and six nominations, has brought Boop to premiere in Chicago at the CIBC Theater until December 24, 2023, before its opening on Broadway. Mitchell is a Midwest son born in Paw Paw, Michigan. At a mere seventeen years old, he saw his first touring productions of Broadway shows in Chicago at the Shubert Theater, now the CIBC Theater.
In a recent interview for ABC 7 Chicago, he was quoted as saying, “It’s not my first time in this town,” Mitchell said. “There is Pretty Woman, On Your Feet, and Kinky Boots. I love being in this city to open musicals because I feel like the city embraces them,” Mitchell said. I feel like the people who work in these theaters are professionals, top of the line.” Mitchell said that Chicago is a great place to be able to share his craft and launch his theatre shows.
When Mitchell signed on to direct Boop, there was no story. The producers only had songs created by Grammy Award-winning composer David Foster, “I Have Nothing,” “After The Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer,” and Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkhead (“Working“, “Jelly’s Last Jam”). Tony Award-winning Bob Martin and Mitchell collaborated on a story. Betty Boop leaves Fleisher’s Black and White Cartoon strips and film shorts with the help of her Professor Grampy for just an ordinary day off in the real world. She travels through dimensions appropriately to NYC’s 2023 Comic Con. She meets her #1 fan, Trisha, played by dynamic Angelic Hale. In Times Square in New York City she finds a whole new genre of diverse music, dance, and love. Color is added to her life. She is, as the song reiterates, “Where I Wanna Be.”
I am so pleased that 23-year-old African American Jasmine Amy Rogers (Mean Girls) plays Betty Boop. She is a third-generation fan. Both her grandmother and mother were also Betty Boop fans. She is an exceptional, radiant actress, singer, and dancer. She absolutely looks and owns the part cooing the signature “Boop-oop-a-doop!” In 1932, performer Helen Kane filed a $250,000 controversial lawsuit against Fleisher, claiming infringement and exploitation of her personality and image. She believed the cartoonist used her act as the basis for Betty Boop. In court, Kane alleged Fleisher copied her act. The defense claimed Kane co-opted her act from African American Baby Esther, a child jazz/scat entertainer. This was a common practice at the time. Whether this was the whole truth or not, it does seem karmic that Jasmine Amy Rogers, an African American, is resurrecting Betty Boop on the musical stage in the 21st century. Betty Boop represents to herself and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” “Boop-oop-a-doop!”
The top-tier all-star cast includes Drama Desk and Tony Award®-winner Faith Prince (Guys and Dolls, “Monarch”) as Valentina, an unrequited lover who is a force of nature on stage. Ainsley Anthony Melham (Aladdin) is an affable Dwayne who plays the jazz trumpet and is a secret admirer of Betty Boop. He is an outstanding actor, singer, and dancer. Stephen DeRosa as Grampy (“Boardwalk Empire”) has perfect comic timing and sometimes steals the show. Erich Bergen (Jersey Boys, “Madam Secretary”) as Raymond is fabulous as the skeezy New York mayoral candidate. His stage presence is commanding. He is a phenomenally talented actor, singer, and dancer and a joy to watch. Angelica Hale as Betty’s #1 fan, Trisha (“America’s Got Talent” finalist) is an exceptional talent who will blow you away. She is an adorable seventeen-year-old petite dynamo who captures your heart as she guides Betty Boop through the real world of NYC. Her powerful voice is bigger than she is.
Supporting actors in this musical are tremendously talented. Phillip Huber (Being John Malkovich) is the world-renowned marionette artist who brings Pudgy, Betty’s pet pup, to life. Pudgy is charming and gets a whole lot of laughs. Anastacia McCleskey (Caroline or Change) skillfully portrays the honest, forthright campaign manager Carol, who is also Trisha’s aunt. Morgan Probst aptly plays the Talking Head Cheryl King reporter to many audience guffaws. Aubrey McCleskkey is a perfect cartoon film director. He and his assistant, Ricky Schroeder, play off each other remarkably well. They are a great comedy duo.
The creative team includes prolific set designer Tony Award winner David Rockwell, who was born in Chicago but effectively takes us to Comic Con 2023, Times Square a New York City apartment with his exceptional sets in Boop! Costume designer Gregg Barnes provides the glitz and glamour of a Broadway smash. Philip S. Rosenberg sets the mood between the black and white cartoon strip Betty to Live in Color Love ‘n’ It Betty. Sound designer Gareth Owen and awesome projection designer Finn Ross do fabulous work enhancing our experience. The wig designer, Sabana Majeed, captures Boop’s guiche coiffure, while makeup designer Michael Clifton perfectly transitions Rogers into a cartoon character. Illusions designer Skyler Fox keeps the magic of Betty Boop front and center. Marionette design is by The Huber Marionettes, and the superb musical supervision and arrangements are by Tony winner Daryl Waters.
The ensemble singers and dancers bring the old-time magic of a synchronized chorus line to this big, bold, brash Broadway production. They do soft shoe, tap, and hip-hop with verve and excitement. I loved hearing the audience applause for these meticulous, precision dancers who could also creatively freestyle dance. On opening night, we were fortunate to sit near the Creative Director of Fleisher Studios, Frank Caruso. He was a fount of information and fun quips. He has drawn Betty Boop for 35 years. He knew precisely how Max Fleisher would draw the graphics. He also shared with us that Max invented the Rotoscope that allowed Betty Boop to become a shorts film star.
CIBC Theater 18 West Monroe, tickets for BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical are on sale now, ranging from $28.00 – $106.00. There are a select number of premium tickets available. Tickets are available now for groups of ten or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710 or emailing Group Sales For more information, please visit Broadway in Chicago
The audience reacted alive with hearty laughter and enthusiastic applause definitely embraced this joyful experience. Before we even entered the show I heard the best reviews from several of the young ushers who see many of the Broadway in Chicago productions. They said with big smiles on their faces. “You will love this show. It is so much fun.”
Photos: Courtesy of Mark Seliger, Amy Boyle, and Boop! The Betty Boop Musical