‘Life is a circus, it’s all a big show’, this statement reflects the content and conceptual basis of Chicago, the latest major production from Hobarts Bijou Creative staged at the Theatre Royal. Written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse with music by John Kander, Chicago is an evocative throwback to Prohibition era-Chicago where liquor, adultery, and public hangings were all just part of the flashy neon-laced backdrop that was society.
A preface: I was ridiculously tired when I turned up at the Royal, and when I found my seat, I confined to the girl next to me that the show would have to be ‘pretty good to keep me interested’. Que the lights dimming, a group of scantily clad women taking the stage, the jazz induced swing tunes from the ridiculously tight band, and the main character Roxie gun down her lover with several squeezes of the trigger. So begins her problems and the narrative structure of the musical: Roxie goes to jail and meets convicted killer and Vaudeville star Velma who resides comfortably in the limelight of top celebrity criminal in Chicago from her prison cell in the Cook County Jail. Roxie hires ace lawyer Billy Flynn to defend her in court, and eventually discovers that fame is easily achieved through notoriety. Enter an ongoing struggle between Velma and Roxie to stay on the front page of the newspaper, to ensure they are Flynn’s number one client, and most importantly to outdo one another in public perception and societal hierarchy.
To say I was impressed by the showmanship and quality of the performances on stage would be an understatement. From the comedic timing, the dancing, the pitch perfect singing, and the wholly absorbing acting, the cast and crew kept the Royal audience entertained and humoured for the entire run time. And while I could tell afterwards that the majority of the crowd walked away laughing, I felt more like an English teacher than perhaps I should… I felt like there was some great symbolic meaning to it all.
Funnily enough, through all the sexual innuendo and comedic knee slapping, there lies within Chicago a true, perhaps frustrating, commentary upon the absurdity of American media, society, and moral mores. While the story impinges on the gritty one-up gestures of two convicted murderers who spend part of the show liaising with mass murders, promiscuous manslaughters, and judicially delusional killers, these details are wrapped up in layers of comedic and tongue in-cheek laughs. But look through these layers and one can see the references to the American media’s obsession with crimes like an eyesore. In some ways, it highlights this Beckett-esque madness much like a less gore-filled Natural Born Killers. Of course, the beauty of great musical theatre is its metaphorical allusions (think the personification of addiction in The Black Rider) that lies just beyond the surface, which Chicago practices openly. And while it is easy to attribute this to Ebb and Fosse for writing the show, Bijou Creative’s interpretation of the show proved to be unique but faithful to the original writers thematic style.
In terms of the practical show itself, the easiest criticism to be made of Bijou’s production would be its set design, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Vaudeville and the narrative basis of the show would suggest big flashy stage props, flamboyantly wild dress codes and more neon lights than you would find in a Nicholas Winding Refn film. But these things could not be farther from the truth. The stage, besides being filled by actors and the full band, was basically empty (beside the occasional table or chair), much to the dismay of some audience members. Perhaps initially I felt the same, but then I realized the minimal, desolate stage was a neat thespian contrast to the content within the musical. Praise to all involved, but especially to Scott and Nicole Farrow (Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart) as well as the thick-accented narrator Scott Burns and the neatly choreographed ensemble. The band and its sound was also of a top rate, professional standard: right on cue, ridiculously vibrant and swiftly orchestrated.
Bijou Creative’s Chicago is a testament to the power and strength of local Tasmanian theatre, and proof that the escapism and beauty on which musical theatre was built in the 30’s/40’s is still as lavish, nostalgic and enjoyable as ever.