By John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by Michael Hurst
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | November 1-December 15
Spectacle is underrated, especially in Auckland theatre. There are often shows that are beautiful despite (or because) of their small budget, and there are shows that have had me spellbound all the while wondering how they did so much with so little. And then there are shows like Chicago.
Chicago is pure and utter spectacle. It’s Auckland Theatre Company putting everything at their disposal onstage; it’s Michael Hurst throwing every trick in his bag of directorial tricks at an audience; and it’s the fourteen-strong cast giving it their all onstage. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a theatre all year.
This is not Chicago as you remember it. This isn’t Renee Zellweger gasping through her songs or Richard Gere’s dance number. This isn’t a high school production ticking off every box. This is Chicago swallowed whole and spat out looking like gold. From the moment a heavily revamped version of ‘All That Jazz’ starts off with Lucy Lawless’s rock growl, you know this isn’t a show you’ve seen before.
The plot remains the same: it’s tale of crime and fame hunger in 1920s Chicago, albeit delightfully anachronistic in this version. Roxie Hart (Amanda Billing) has killed a man she was cheating on her husband with and finds herself in jail with another murderess, Velma Kelly (Lucy Lawless), who killed her husband and the woman he was cheating on her with. Both have dreams of being famous. Both have dreams of being vaudevillian stars. It resolves itself as you would imagine, but the plot isn’t why you come to see Chicago. You come for the songs.
The songs are radically reimagined by music director John Gibson. They’re jazzier and they’re rockier, and as a result they’re a whole lot more memorable. I’m never going to forget Andrew Grainger’s heartbreaking and somehow triumphant ‘Mr. Cellophane’, nor am I going to forget any of the group numbers, which are sung and danced impeccably by a fantastic ensemble. The show’s new (and surprising) highlight, ‘If You’re Good to Mama’, will be etched on my brain for some time to come. Half of the song’s power is in its rearrangement, choreography and staging, but the other half comes from Colleen Davis’s arena-filling voice. Much like Hurst tears into Chicago, Davis tears into a song that I’ve never much cared for before, and she turns it into a show stopper.
Davis’s performance on the whole is a delight, as is the rest of the cast’s. Billing’s Roxie Hart anchors the show, and she lends a Kardashian-esque thirst to the character’s fame hunger while also staying true to the intelligence that Roxie does have. As Velma Kelly, Lawless is an undeniable presence (and massive draw to the show), and her Velma is a fascinating set of neuroses. She gives us a woman that was once a star, but probably wasn’t very good at being a star, and wants it badly again. However, she also gives us the carnality and anger behind Velma, which comes across very strongly in her numbers. Both leads are on-point with their vocals, and their final number is another highlight of a show that has many highlights.
The rest of the ensemble could easily be singled out—James Luck’s bunny-eared assistant, Will Barling’s heels-clad murderess, Sandra Rassmussen’s flawless tap-dancing narrator, or any of a multitude of characters that parade across the stage throughout Chicago’s two hour and change duration—but the ensemble as a whole is so strong and so clearly giving it all in every scene, number, and moment, that they all deserve rapturous applause.
Hurst’s directorial brilliance extends to a firm command of the visuals of the show. Sean Lynch’s lighting design makes us feel like we’re watching a professional wrestling match, watching these murderesses duke it out for the top prize, and John Harding’s set design provides the same feeling. I am drastically underqualified to judge Shona McCullagh’s choreography, but I was stunned at every turn and never left wanting for beautiful movement on stage.
Auckland Theatre Company caps off their year with perhaps their strongest production of the season, give or take a similarly inventive and brilliant adaptation of The Glass Menagerie. It bodes well for next year, but also sets a very high expectation for next year’s musical. Well before that though, go and see Chicago. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a theatre in a long time, and is easily the best musical I’ve seen all year.