On Sunday I went to see Chicago at the Lyric Theatre, Star City. Here’s the review:
Apologies for the pictures – the program is so big that it won’t fit on my scanner, and I’d rather not have to splice together half of a picture with another half, so you get photos instead! How utterly exciting for everyone. Anyways, as you can see, above is the title page. Very glossy. Very expensive. Very big. It’s looking good so far.
Following that is the usual profiles of the actors/directors/miscellaneous. The four main actors get two pages each – it’s like four mini-centrefolds that you can look at without feeling guilty about it. Often profiles have a little extra bit of information at the end, like Caroline O’Connor’s dedication of her performance to “the loving memory of her father, James”. Or perhaps, in the case of Sharon Millerchip, the information that “Sharon’s favourite role, however, is as mother to her beautiful children, Eloise and Fergus”. Her “favourite role”? Where do I buy tickets to see this performance? Is there a row of seats in the children’s bedroom so an audience can applaud as she tucks them in at night? If she’s sick, does an understudy fill the role? Are her children part of the performance as well, or is it some strange version of The Truman Show? As soon as I finish writing this review, I’m calling up DOCS, Mrs. Millerchip – best to start running now.
Next there’s a plot summary, a biography of Bob Fosse, and a blurb about Walter Bobbie, director of the New York production. There’s lots of self-gratification here, and it’s all a tad boring for my liking. I’m sure there’s somebody in the audience who enjoyed reading it, though. Skipping through the rest of the profiles we come to the cast list and musical numbers page, with the disclaimer at the bottom that “non tobacco cigarettes are used in one scene in this performance”. Non-tobacco cigarettes? I didn’t pay over a hundred dollars to see an actor avoid cancer! Where’s the danger, the tension, the “he could die a painful death in twenty years time if he smokes that”? Nowhere to be seen, sadly.
“Ancient, remote & cool. Perfect. (our vines love it!),” reads the advertisement. I have a few problems with this. How can a vineyard both be productive (making wines) and “ancient” at the same time? Surely the act of making wine modernises the vineyard? And also – how do they know that the “vines love it”? Did they send a man around with a clipboard to survey them? I can see the man now, walking up to each vine in turn. “How do you feel about growing here? If you feel that you love this place, make no noise.” Silence. He adds one to the “I love it” tally on his clipboard and moves along. So, Plantagenet Wines, next time try giving away free samples at the theatre instead of putting illogical ads in our programs.
So you’re sitting in a dimly lit theatre, calmly reading your program, when, after flipping a page, you are confronted with this monstrosity! The bright colours, completely out of sync with the rest of the program are an eyesore, not to mention the horror of seeing a grinning Todd McKenney looking straight at you. If I wanted to see Mr. McKenney I would’ve gone to a musical…wait a second! One wonders if the ad campaign for Mix 106.5 is to shock the audience so much with this picture that they turn the radio on for the “smoother mix of music” to calm down.
Another thing of note is the page of merchandise in the program – Logo Tees, Fitted Tees, Diamante Tees, Caps, Keyrings, Coffee Mugs, Fridge Magnets, Teddy Bears, Recordings, Shopping Bags! Because nothing lets people know you’re a Chicago fan more than walking down the street in your sparkling Chicago Diamante Tee, with your Chicago cap, your keys, held together by a Chicago keyring, dangling out of your Chicago shopping bag as well as your Chicago teddy bear (in some freakish imitation of Paris Hilton and her Chihuahua), while sipping some coffee from your Chicago coffee mug, listening on your discman to the Chicago recording, and thinking about the Chicago fridge magnet that you have at home now, does it?
And so we come to the end. The verdict? It’s big, it’s glossy, it’s expensive ($20), but it’s also quite boring – there was nothing in it that particularly interested me at all. For something so costly, it provided very little in return.
The score? 6/10
As I was shown to my seat by a somewhat effeminate gentleman I couldn’t help but wonder whether ushering was the fallback position for failed airline stewards. (If you find that in any way offensive, which I’m certain it is, then feel free to send a complaint to the email address on the About page. It gets so lonely sometimes – any mail would be welcome.) Consumed with these thoughts, I nonetheless managed to aim my posterior into the cushioned seat reserved for me.
What followed was two and a half hours of hip-gyrating, sexy-positioning, skin-displaying song and dance. There’s something for both genders here – girls in next to nothing for the men, men in next to nothing for the girls, and musicians dressed normally for the blind. If you’re looking for a night of romance after a performance, then Chicago is the play to see. Who thought that musical theatre could boost the birth rate?
We are first introduced to Velma Kelly (Caroline O’Connor), singing the famous All That Jazz. Next we discover Roxie Hart (Sharon Millerchip), who has murdered her lover and is sent to prison, leaving her husband, Amos Hart (Damien Bermingham) to fend for himself. Velma Kelly has also murdered her sister and lover after discovering them “doing the spread eagle”, and so both girls are in prison. Enter Matron “Mama” Morton (Gina Riley), who schools the girls in the benefits of reciprocity, and opens the doors to the two getting the best lawyer in town, Billy Flynn (Craig McLachlan), who not only will set them free but generate publicity that they could have only wished for previously – his methods an indictment of the press of the time, including his “seduction” of the reporter Mary Sunshine (D.C. Harlock).
But what follows doesn’t seem to place that much importance on the story at all – not from any problems with the script, but more from the treatment of it in this revival. What most Lyric Theatre devotees will notice is that the band is sitting in a tiered-seating structure at the back of the stage, with some of the performers rising from the middle of it. This is a change from virtually every musical that has graced the Lyric Theatre since I started going to them, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a welcome change, either. When you go to see a musical of this nature, you’re not paying to see the “power of a minimal set”, you’re paying to have a good time, listen to some catchy tunes, laugh yourself silly, and be involved in a story – this wasn’t the case here. As the band takes up most of the stage, there is no room for set changes (except for a few minor ones), but the majority of the set relies on the audience’s imagination. This hurts the story, I think, which reduces the impact of the play.
This experience of Chicago seemed like twenty or so songs with bits of story stuck in between. The comedy in the first act isn’t as humorous as it tries to be (through no fault of the actors), and I think the minimal set design is one of the reasons for this, and also the reason for some of the other problems that I saw. Because there’s no set changes, the story blurs into the background as a few lines of dialogue set up the next song. “That is what a musical is,” you may say, “just songs with transitions between them.” And I would agree with you somewhat, but that didn’t seem quite enough in this production. I think that set changes can alter the pace of a play, or change the mood in an instant (a sad scene followed by a set change can uplift the audience), and without such alterations, the musical falls into a blandness that it struggles to escape from.
That is not to say that this is a horrible production, though. The performance of the two leading ladies is superb, although Caroline O’Connor would be seen by some as perhaps a tad too old for the part that she is playing, but she plays the part with such gusto that those reservations are quickly dismissed. Sharon Millerchip’s dumb-blonde version of Roxie is a delight to see as well, as are the other four performers. But good singing alone does not make a good musical.
I’m a fan of the recent movie version of Chicago, and I think that helped to make the play more enjoyable for me, as I already knew and liked the songs in it. In fact, I think that it is the songs that are the saving grace of this production. Most musicals can rely on the engaging story and comedy that are usually on offer, but because these two fall flat for most of Chicago, the musical numbers are all that remain. So thankfully Chicago has many songs that you’ll be humming to yourself for days to come. And with the amount of dancing and exposed flesh on the stage, there’s plenty to look at while you’re listening as well.
In closing, I feel like I’m making this production sound worse than it actually is – I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching it. I just didn’t enjoy myself as much as usual, as much as I would’ve liked to, and I think this is because the story takes a secondary role during the performance. It is a riveting story too, filled with lust, greed, sex, adultery, corruption, etc, but none of that was emphasised, so the audience misses out on the darker side of Chicago, instead being presented with mostly light and fluffy froth. It is good froth, mind you, but as most of you will know, a cappuccino that is all froth is not considered a good cappuccino – there needs to be something darker underneath. All in all, a good night out, but I’ve had better evenings at the Lyric Theatre.
The score? 7/10
Chicago is at the Lyric Theatre, Star City until the 9th August, with Caroline O’Connor, Sharon Millerchip, Damien Bermingham, Gina Riley, Craig McLachlan, and D.C. Harlock.