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At home in a hoofer's paradise

Alan Thicke's role in the strenuous dance show, Chicago, doesn't require tapping his toes. But hit his marks? You bet.

Chicago is first and foremost a display of Bob Fosse's spectacular jazz choreography. But it has one part that doesn't require dancing, that of the high-rolling lawyer, Billy Flynn.

"I wouldn't presume to call myself a dancer in the presence of these amazing young athletes, but I do know how to hit the marks," said Alan Thicke, who plays Flynn in the national touring company of the Kander and Ebb musical.

Thicke, best known as a TV talk-show and game-show host and for playing psychiatrist Jason Seaver in the sitcom Growing Pains, has been in various Chicago companies off and on for more than a year. He rejoined the tour last month in Nashville, where he had one rehearsal before doing a show.

"I met my new leading lady in the afternoon and we were onstage that night," said Thicke, who spent several weeks brushing up on the part in Los Angeles before heading out on the road.

Quick cast changes come with the territory in a strenuous dance show like Chicago. "These traveling theater pros are ready to take on somebody new at the drop of a hat, especially in a show like this where people go down with injuries every week," Thicke said. "I've literally seen it happen where somebody gets hurt in the first act and the stand-in pulls on the fishnet and goes out to finish the show."

Thicke will be with the tour through next week's Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center engagement, then move into the Las Vegas company to replace Hal Linden. Originated by James Naughton, Flynn has been played by a wide variety of performers since the revival opened on Broadway in 1996 and got a rave front-page review in the New York Times.

"Hal Linden gives it a Matlock spin," Thicke said. "Brent Barrett played it kind of slick and evil. Hinton Battle played it like a gospel singer. The role has been played by great dancers like Ben Vereen, and the choreography will upgrade so you can do as much dancing as you wish."

And the Thicke interpretation? "My mandate is to drive the piece and see what comedy I can find in it."

Thicke is host of a remake of Three's a Crowd, a "relationship" show that recently started airing on the Game Show Channel. "I like the interactive aspect of live television," he said. "When I was called to do a game show _ as everybody in the country was these last six months _ the one I chose was the improvisational format as opposed to a hard-question-big-dollar game."

He isn't surprised by the runaway popularity of ABC Television's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "The real phenomenon is that people think this is new. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy have been kicking butt in primetime access for 15 years. There's clearly a game show audience. Millionaire just gave them something new."

Thicke is no stranger to Tampa. He sang the national anthem at the first Tampa Bay Lightning Game in 1992. "I'm a hockey groupie," said the native Canadian, who is a buddy of Phil Esposito, the Lightning's former general manager.

He has been following the team's struggles this season. "They need another anthem. They won the night I sang."