Chicago: the musical where sex and success are everything

The Vodafone Season of Chicago
Directed by Michael Hurst
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre
Until December 15

Most musicals revolve around the standard boy meets girl story. Boy meets girl, something bad happens, it all turns out ok and they live happily ever after. Not in Chicago. Here the plot line is boy meets girl, something bad happens, girl shoots boy and lives happily ever after.

The show is set in 1920s Chicago where Roxie Hart murders her lover. She briefly gets her gullible husband, Amos, to take the blame until the police convince him that the burglar was in fact Fred, a friend and Roxie's lover. Much of the show is set in jail where Roxie is incarcerated with several other murderesses including the famous stage performer and murderess, Velma Kelly. They are both headline hunters seeking to capitalise on pre-trial publicity for the sake of acquittal and stage careers. In the end their tricky lawyer, Billy Flynn, manages to get both of them free.

There is not much romance in this show. None of your typical love duets or aching solos about lost love. This is about the bleaker side of love as we are told at the beginning. “It’s a story about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery.” On the positive side, only the foreign girl has to be hanged for her crime and oily Billy Flynn pockets hefty payouts from the girls.

The dancers really make the show, with electrifying performances. Choreographed by Shona McCullagh, they perform in a cabaret or burlesque style but there are elements of the sleazy strip club which help give the production edginess. It is McCullagh's stylish combination of sleaze and cool which makes the dancing crisp, inventive and sexy.

With the production in the round most of the audience are only a few metres from the almost naked performers which gave the performance a palpable intensity and energy. Some of the audience members were even in danger of being hit by various props – a whip, a tire or blow-up sex dolls.

One of the big drawcards for the show was Lucy Lawless who plays the part of Velma Kelly and she lives up to expectations, with a portrayal which was earthy and perceptive.

She was matched by Amanda Billings as Roxie who gave a red hot performance capturing the subtleties of the character as she develops.

Shane Cortese as the strutting self-obsessed Billy Flynn provided something of a Hugh Hefner persona, oozing around the floor, initially in his leopard skin mini dressing gown, later in his teflon shiny suit.

Colleen Davis as the prison mother/guard gives a licentious performance with her sultry rendition of When You're Good to Mama.

Amos, Roxie’s husband, was played by Andrew Grainger with a performance that was part comic and part tragic and his singing of Mr Cellophane was full of pathos.

Virtually all the number were greeted with spontaneous applause by the audience who loved the vocals and the dialogue which rippled with smart one liners and clever observations. Also playing a major part were the sexy and at times minimalist costumes designed by Lesley Burkes-Harding, which provided just the right level of sophistication and sensuality.

The show is really all about sex – romance and sex, lust and sex, the exploitation of woman and sex, the manipulation of the justice system and sex and the media and sex.  Along with the strong hint of sex there are some social and political; messages threaded into the various stories making it more than just a superficial romp with nice tunes.

Director Michael Hurst knows how to use actors and dancers to great effect and has created a scintillating show of sexual beauty, energy and tension.

The best thing about the show is that you can actually hear the singers. A number of musicals over the past couple of years have been over-miked and the bands have thought it was their night out. But, with this show, there was realisation that the audience doesn’t ask to be blasted out of their seats and are happy to have the band as accompaniment.

And what a band they were with Stephen Thomas on drums, Brett Adams and his guitar, Cameron McArthur stroking his bass and Jeff Henderson blowing several instruments including the sax provided a fantastic sound.

The musical has an interesting genesis. It is based on an original play by Maureen Dallas Watkins and the book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb with Lyrics by Fred Ebb and Music by John Kander