Give ‘em the old tit-ill-ation [by James Wenley]
If you think you know Chicago, leave your expectations at the theatre door. The stockings haven’t just been rolled down, they’ve been ripped completely off in this down and dirty, hyper-sexualised re-imagining of the Kander and Ebb musical from the warped mind of virtuoso Michael Hurst. There’s jazz, and a whole lot more besides. No. Make that less.
Musicals generally as a form tend to stick to the tried and true. For the successful ones, year after year of West End and Broadway runs lead to carbon copies for regional and international tours and amateur productions (with strict rights conditions on what can be done to the show). Chicago is famously based on a 1926 Broadway play by Maurine Dallas, who herself covered the trials of high profile female accused murderers as a columnist. Kander and Ebb’s Chicago: A Vaudeville Musical, with direction by Bob Fosse, opened Broadway in 1975 and played for two years. The brechtian style apparently made audiences uncomfortable; John Gibson notes in the program that it “was deemed too dark, cynical and clever”. The 1996 Broadway revival, now just Chicago: The Musical – with its slinky black outfits, bowler hats, and Fosse-esque choreography – still plays on the great white way. Rob Marshall’s 2002 Oscar winning film – a magnificent example of translating the stage musical into cinema – has further solidified the story of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, violence and treachery… all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts” into a known entertainment commodity. The recent performance at the Hollywood Bowl, which featured Lucy Lawless as Mama Morton, played in the same sandbox. The show has been popular this year, with a number of amateur societies performing it across Auckland.
Hurst shows no fidelity to the traditional look – or even the sound of the show. There are those familiar opening beats of All that Jazz, but as Lucy Lawless and the cast arrive the tune distorts, as if dislodging from the 1920s Jazz era and searching the radio dial for a new period to settle in. Musical Director John Gibson has made audaciously different musical arrangements of the Kander and Ebb songs (which he notes were pastiches to begin with) and gives a new edge to the score, often with a rock twist. His band are rambunctious, funky, and bold. Since you can’t quite sing along to these familiar songs in your head, you listen to the inventive lyrics afresh. Hurst seems to be restoring the shock of the new to bring to the fore the work’s assault on American values, media spin, vapid celebrity, and the general populace’s hunger for salaciousness and scandal, disposable entertainment divorced from reality. With the audience in the round surrounding the central action, we are completely implicated in the circus surrounding murderess darlings Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.
For those following his work, Hurst’s Chicago is the logical progression in his exploration in recent years with the Musical Theatre form, each with Shortland Street’s Amanda Billing as his leading lady muse. In each production – let’s call them the Amanda Billing Trilogy – he has played with expectations and the audience relationship, starting with his bombastic staging of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (Silo, 2008) on the Maidment Theatre stage. He paired it back for Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (ATC 2010) where the magnificent Spiegeltent added much to its enthralling atmosphere. Now with Chicago Q is completely paired back to a bare central stage with ramps running down on four sides for entrances and exits. Bare is the right word, for the major design feature in this John Harding set is a stylised floor design of a mirrored big-breasted naked female beauty with cropped hair, more discernible the higher up you are seated in Q. Sean Lynch’s lighting design – never easy in the round – creates a spectacularly seedy environment.
Act One moves at relentless pace, revealing its Vaudeville inspirations as Hurst moves it seamlessly from number to number as the cast of shady characters are introduced via song. The show has been tightened with the removal of reporter character Mary Sunshine and her song A Little Bit of Good, and Velma’s songs I know a Girl and When Velma Takes the Stand are dropped.
Chicago is catapulted to a dark sex and celebrity obsessed parody of today. Roxie, post-murder, and her put-upon husband Amos are captured on a detective’s smartphone camera. Lesley Burkes-Harding’s costume aesthetic, with ripped stockings and lots of flesh, is contemporary fetishistic. Amanda Billing’s sings an amped up Roxie, fantasizing about fame (“they’re gonna recognize my eyes my hair my teeth my boobs my nose”), in skimpy cream lingerie; a sexualised image of celebrity as befitting the Miley Cryus dreams of millions of young girls. Sandra Rassmussen as Tallulah, a faded tap-dancing flapper girl stalks the edges of the stage, a quasi-omnipresent narrator who hands the gun to Roxie, and serving as a reminder of the story’s traditional lineage.
Billing plays Roxie as older and less naïve as other dumb-blonde incarnations, improvising and conniving her ambitious way through the story to get the best outcomes for herself and only herself. While Lawless is the headliner, Billing is the star. Velma Kelly is the supporting player, the fading light usurped by the newest fad, and Lawless is the show’s powder keg, explosive and compelling, but used sparingly enough to leave you wanting more. Lawless’ Kelly attacks the stage with a striking sexual energy and cynical bravado that hides a deep vulnerability exposed in “Act of Desperation” where she hysterically tries to convince Roxie to join her vaudeville rodeo act. While it’s a performance that doesn’t convince Roxie, it’s a performance that completely convinces us, especially when Lawless pulls out the cattle whip!
Cortese’s sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn sings “All I care about is love” wearing a short silk leopard dressing gown while inspecting a lady’s derriere, and that is as good a summation as any of the characterisation. Cortese gives an Elvis swagger in Flynn’s songs , employing a stage star power to equally the leading ladies.
Andrew Grainger’s Aww Shucks Amos Hart successfully gives the audience at least one person to care about amongst the tawdriness. Wisely, Mr.Cellophane is the song that the creatives muck around with the least, allowing Grainger on the bare stage to painfully let the audience into his frustration with his lot in life, adding an aggressive slant on the song. Katie Swift’s Hunyak, who protests her innocence, is the only other who finds a moment of real pathos in the show.
Colleen Davis’ platinum blonde young Mama Morton is a radically different take on the character. Hurst takes the lyrics “When you’re stroking Mama / Mama’s stroking you” quite literally, Davis playing a butch woman’s prison matron who assists/takes advantage of her favourite inmates for cash and sexual favours. When you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you indeed.
This is true of the rest of the production as well: all the innuendo is put to the front and taken quite literally. The production ain’t exactly subtle. The jailbirds of Cell Block Tango violently take out their murderous rage on Mike Edward, standing in for all men who had it coming, Shona McCullagh’s choreography devises numerous ways to have him suffer, culminating in having him hang upside down above the stage in a reverse crucifixion. The reporters of We Both Reached for the Gun, imagined as marionettes in the film, are bought out as naked blow-up dolls, black tape over their naughty bits. The cast’s choreography with the dolls is madly outrageously and inventive, Billy Flynn literally screwing the press. Some grotesque adult-sized babies join the stage for a Tropicana inspired Me and my Baby. And again and again, we are titillated by the good looking, physically flexible, and shameless young cast.
There’s a danger of all this of course. By the time we get to the climax of Razzle Dazzle, the merciless offensive on the criminal justice system and celebrity, we’ve grown quite immune to it all. Two luxurious chandeliers lower from the ceiling, and we are thrown everything from a rolling skating Wonder Woman to nipple flames, but the number can’t quite match earlier highs or surprises.
This is fitting, perhaps, for a media-saturated culture that we live in where little holds the power to truly shock. The story of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart is much older than the 1920s, speaking to an impulse that has been with us for the ages. Hurst writes in his program notes of wanting to make like Hamlet and hold the mirror up to nature with this production. Hurst’s sexual saturation and particular brand of minimalist excess, combined with the new musical arrangements, are as if to provoke us to look at Chicago and realise: this is what we are. We are living this circus now. You can’t disagree with Mama Morton, “In this town, murder’s a form of entertainment”.
If this triumphant production played in the main theatre centres of the world, I suspect it would be heralded as a major new revival. Hurst plays fast and loose, allowing us to discover a Chicago that is immediate and cynical. More importantly: it is startlingly entertaining, implicating us twice over.
Chicago is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q’s Rangatira until 15 December. Details see Q.