Theatre review: Chicago, directed by Michael Hurst

by Nick Grant / 07 November, 2013
Nick Grant reviews Michael Hurst’s new production of the musical.
Director Michael Hurst and his team of collaborators bring bucketloads of the old razzle-dazzle, with a helping of raunch, to Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Chicago.

The cynical 1975 musical’s portrayal of the perversion of the justice system by a corrupt celebrity culture is well served by a staging that’s superb in every technical respect.

Star power: Lucy Lawless and Amanda Billing. Photo/Michael Smith

Musical director John Gibson and his four-strong band of Stephen Thomas, Brett Adams, Jeff Henderson and Cameron McArthur make the score their own, greatly aided by Q Theatre’s augmented acoustics. Shona McCullagh’s often dazzling choreography oozes a sinewy and sleazy sex appeal, an effect complemented by Lesley Burkes-Harding’s stylish and/or skimpy costumes.

Meanwhile, Sean Lynch’s lighting design flawlessly illuminates John Harding’s “in the round” performance space, and the ensemble of 14 do a uniformly excellent job of playing to every side of the audience that surrounds them.

Lucy Lawless, Amanda Billing and Shane Cortese give the show a shot of box office-boosting star power in the lead roles of, respectively, good-time-gals-in-jail Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart and their utterly unctuous lawyer, Billy Flynn. This would have smacked of revenue-driven stunt casting if the three didn’t acquit themselves with such aplomb, with Billing particularly impressive in solos Funny Honey and Roxie, Cortese effortlessly cementing the production’s tone of amoral fun with All I Care About, and Lawless in particularly fine form in duets with Billing (My Own Best Friend) and Colleen Davis (Class).

Opening night’s standout moments, however, belong to supporting players – as Cook County Jail matron Mama Morton, Davis gives a sensational rendition of When You’re Good to Mama, and as the haplessly credulous Amos, Andrew Grainger delivers an angry, plaintive Mr Cellophane that’s freighted with an emotionalism the evening otherwise blithely eschews.

In reinterpreting Chicago, Hurst has taken a show modelled on vaudeville and reworked it as burlesque. It’s a canny move in terms of creating a buzzy (if largely faux) sense of boundary-pushing but arguably comes at the expense of the story’s sharply satirical shape being somewhat obscured by the insistently displayed performers’ shapely forms.

The one real misstep (the rushed execution of Hunyak, the only innocent inmate) is presumably so ATC’s crowd-pleasing Christmas confection doesn’t leave a sour taste, but even without that bracing bite this remains a tart theatrical treat.

CHICAGO, by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, directed by Michael Hurst, Auckland Theatre Company at Q Theatre, until November 30.
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