In the first moment of this production we are plunged into sudden darkness with an accompanying loud explosion. From the audience comes cries of alarm and surprise –and then out of the smoky gloom comes Tallulah (Sandra Rasmussen), a louche, late-night diva, who wets our startled appetites with the promise of a story of 'murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery'. She tap dances and croons, a moment of relative calm before the pumping opening number, which is sweaty, sexy and spectacular.
Tattoos, bizarre underwear, glittery bras and ripped stockings decorate a fully committed and talented cast. Amanda Billing gives a flawless performance as Roxie, mischievous, attention-seeking and with soaring voice. Roxie Hart was a raven-haired murderess and celebrity of her day – the original play took inspiration from a real murderess. This Roxie kills her lover Fred Casely whom she met when he gave her ten percent off on a furniture sale. Roxie's husband Amos Hart loves her so much he’s willing to take the rap. 'He ain't got the smarts', Roxie tells us, and further, 'He ain't too good in the bedroom department.’ Andrew Grainger's Amos is a piece of social realism amongst the writhing glitter and tat, dressed in workingman's overalls and with his hard working mechanic's hands mostly hanging empty at his sides. He is Roxie's Funny Honey. His later song, the signature 'Mr Cellophane,' which will be familiar to many is heart-rending. Other standout songs include prison boss Mama Morton's (Colleen Davis) 'When You're Good To Mama', which is wild and butch. Mama wears a uniform a size too small, high heels and fishnets. Lucy Lawless puts in a star turn as Velma Kelly, Roxie's favourite murderess. Her defence that she blanked out while committing her crime is an age-old defence for female murderers, who could only get away with it on a plea of automatism. Velma and Roxie's duet is fantastic, beautifully accompanied by the band with Jeff Henderson's saxophone adding poignancy.
Director Michael Hurst has modernised and re-interpreted this seminal work. Stephen Butterworth carries a cellphone, blow-up dolls play the jury with their rude bits covered in black masking tape, Velma carries a copy of Women’s Day. Shane Cortese’s slimy Billy Flynn makes his initial appearance in an arresting leopard print shortie dressing-gown. The music too has undergone a brilliant metamorphosis under the direction of John Gibson. Billy's first number has some evocative 'sixties tones, a crazy rendition of 'Roxie' has rap and hip-hop influences. Gibson's band is without fault. It would be nice to be able to see the musicians more clearly – they're tucked away above the silver stage.
Shona McCullagh's choreography is demanding and glorious. Some of the cast sport bruises and strapped shoulders, which do double duty as proof of commitment to the process and evidence of the tough existences of people who lived through the Depression.
Chicago will play until mid-December, days before too many New Zealanders will face an impoverished Christmas. A ticket to this vibrant, take-no-prisoners and cheering show set in other difficult times is a worthwhile extravagance.