Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Chicago

After seeing Chicago I was left feeling a bit hollow. Let’s start however, with the positives. The design was a welcome change from the busy sets that normally occupy the Lyric, with the only setting being the band sitting on stage, tiered like a jury blasting out the fantastic, brassy score. The dancing is spectacular. The Bob Fosse inspired choreography is crisp and exciting, and the ensemble takes to it with vigour. Other than Gina Riley as “Mama” and Damien Birmingham as “Amos” the entire cast produce some truly exhilarating moments. This is matched by superb vocal performances from the cast. The two leads, Caroline O’Connor and Sharon Millerchip are of course outstanding, but they are almost overshadowed by Gina Riley’s impressive range.

The problem with this production was that it had no soul. The story of Chicago is dark and fascinating. It is a tale of sex and violence, of adulteress husbands being killed by their wives, and adulteress wives killing their lovers. The stakes are high for the women in prison as they could all be hung for their offences. It is not a happy, go-lucky tale. Yet that is how it is presented in this production. The show focuses on the razzle dazzle rather than the more dangerous content, and the result was that I simply didn’t give a damn about any of the characters. When an innocent woman is hung, as is the case in the second act, I should care. However, this event had no power, as the character had not been utilised as anything other than shallow comic relief, and as far as I am concerned this was a directorial mistake. I think the major problem was that other than the two leads, who were able to find an integrity in their broad American accents, none of the performers found truth in the text. The ensemble’s brief contributions were generally over-acted (I actually cringed at the judge), Craig McLachlan seemed to be walking through Billy Flynn and I was particularly disappointed in Gina Riley, whose television work I so admire (particularly The Games). Damien Birmingham came as close as one could hope to a few touching moments as the naïve husband Amos, but with no support these glimmers were lost amidst the sparkles. I often find myself defending music theatre as a genre to peers who accuse it of being over-funded, meaningless entertainment. In the case of this production their accusations would be justified. With the minimalist design, I had hoped that a performer-led show would result in a moving experience. Instead, I enjoyed a night of dance and song, which I couldn’t help but feel was an opportunity missed.


- Simon

13 comments:

The Perf said...

Music theatre is over funded meaningless entertainment.

Mark

jenni said...

Totally agree Simon. I just ended up frustrated the whole time about the multitude of performers I know who could blow some of those performers off the stage. The dancers couldn't act and they needed to be able to. Again, how many people can dance and act well? Plenty I'll bet. Musical Theatre at worst should be escapism of some kind, but when you are too busy openly cringing at poor accents/acting, there isn't even time for it! And at 90 bucks or more a ticket, that's kind of frustrating...

Mara said...

Mark, I would encourage you to have a look at any musical by Stephen Sondheim and see if that at least changes your mind a little bit. This is the sort of music theatre which no-one will put on, especially not now, because it's not going to turn a massive profit, in spite of Sondheim's massive critical acclaim. It's certainly not meaningless by any standards - it's very intelligent theatre with excellent book writing by good playwrights. I understand where you're coming from, but there are real gems out there - you just have to look past the dodgy stuff.

Rachel said...

I agree with Mara. Musical theatre is generally over-funded (on a professional level) and often falls into the category of 'entertainment' rather than what many would consider 'art', but I disagree with Musical Theatre being labeled 'meaningless'.

Mara said...

Also I am yet to see this production of Chicago but the way I've felt about the work being produced on main stages in the past couple of years is that they're trying to make shows into something that they really shouldn't be. Rocky Horror was a perfect example of a show that they tried to make "Broadway" and glitzy, that for me, fell way short of hitting the mark. Similarly with Chicago, everyone forgets that when it premiered in 1975 it lost pretty much all the Tony Awards to "A Chorus Line" and really wasn't that popular, people thought it was too gritty and dark. It was the revival in the 1990s that popularised it. So I resent that there's this tendency to take the edge off these shows. When you read the script to Chicago, it's quite powerful and hard hitting.

The Perf said...

That's exactly what I felt Mara. I wanted that power, that grit. I mean, wives killing their husbands and getting away with it? That's interesting stuff...

- Simon

MattG said...

This production is actually the EXACT same production as the late 90's West End show (and I assume the Broadway one also), through the same company. Choreography, direction, set and costume has not changed in 10 years. This must fuel the argument that this is a tired performance. I think this is only furthered by the casting of Caroline O'Conner - while she sings, dances and acts well, it doesn't suppress the lingering thought in my head 'yeah, but she's 50!'.
I enjoyed parts of this show, but, like you Simon, was let down by the musical on the whole.
As for MT being meaningless, obviously I disagree. There are many quite poignant MT shows out there. And anyway, who's to say entertainment is meaningless? ;-)

Anonymous said...

bam

Mara said...

This is fairly common now - that a production is just transferred, not actually restaged. Phantom of the Opera goes for decades without the direction changing. I think it's a terrible way to produce theatre.

The Perf said...

It's the same production Matt, but from what I've been told it's been presented quite differently this time around. The biggest difference being that there was a lot less light in the show 10 years ago, which completely changed the tone.

- Simon

Mara said...

Finally saw the production today. I think you've made some great observations. I would now like to add some of my own:

* Caroline O'Connor in my opinion found a much better medium between playing a heightened character and a more naturalistic individual than all of the ensemble but also Sharon Millerchip as Roxie. I realise speaking of naturalism in music theatre can be contentious but my philosophy at this point is that you need to feel that they're a real person but to play it heightened is necessary or it's often lackluster.
* I disagreed with Millerchip's choices for Roxie. I disliked the way for most of Act 1 she was played drunk/tipsy, and I accepted the girlish giggling to an extent but when it got to the monologue before the song Roxie, I had absolutely had enough. I think it's justifiable to play her silly when she's around other characters but alone she should show her true self - calculating for one and other things too. She killed someone, remember? I really missed this in Millerchip's performance and it made me not only resistant to caring about Roxie but I didn't believe her at all - not even in her desire to be a star.
* As already acknowledged by Simon and Jenni, the ensemble could not act and the show suffered severely as a result - particularly the Cell Block tango which should be dynamic. At least the dancing was! And man, that judge - I realise they cast for dancers but how did this happen?
* I thought the biggest waste was Hunyak - a role I would die to play if I could dance like that - and I felt the actress just threw it away. However, I think this was also a directorial problem as I felt the hanging was incredibly poorly executed. It had no impact whatsoever. In the movie I was on the edge of my seat.
* Leading on from this, I came to the realisation just how great the movie adaptation is. I thought Razzle Dazzle, the Cell Block Tango and They Both Reached for the Gun were done exceptionally well in the movie and less well on stage.
* I felt both Craig McLachlan and Gina Riley slightly underplayed and needed more energy. Flynn in my opinion needs to be just oozing charisma and this was lacking.
* I am all for the prominence of the band/orchestra and so I loved that aspect but I felt for the most part it was underused. I enjoyed the interactions with the musical director and I thought that for the amount of space it needed to be more creatively inhabited by the action.
* The choreography was exceptional but I was expecting wonders from the great Ann Reinking and I was suitably impressed :)
* I thought that Damien Birmingham was beautifully genuine and whenever he came on stage I felt good because he played it so well. I didn't need him to be a great dancer - I found him captivating. However (and this leads to my main issue with the production), as Simon as pointed out, the show had no soul. I feel like that at the end of CHICAGO, you should have a sort of a bittersweet taste in your mouth - yes it's entertaining but there's something darker and disturbing. This for me was exemplified (and this perhaps was just my misfortune) by the audience applauding wildly when Amos asked for his exit music and none ensued. The audience was highly entertained. I was not. I think that should be one of the more gut wrenching moments of realisation as you consider how devastating it must be to be that perenially ignored by everyone around you. I want that bit to ask an audience to question who in their lives plays Amos' role. This is what it did for me and it was quite powerful. However, it was immediately undermined by the shrug at the end of this moment.

I hope this is in some way logical!

real said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jenni said...

Amusing, isn't it when people post mean comments that are then emailed out to everyone on the blog and then they delete them hoping that no one has ever seen them. Apparently we (possibly more directed at Mark and Simon) "amateur theatre" actors provide only text book reviews. Well, in having the support of notable theatre critics who also post on this blog I would have to disagree. Also, at least they know how a blog works...

...Sorry, just having another of my self-important rants