STAGE: Chicago – Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
NOBODY in KwaZulu-Natal gives the old razzle-dazzle with as much verve, invention and regularity as Durban’s treasured KickstArt theatre company.
Very little surprise, then, that the versatile team that gave us my two all-time favourite Durban musicals, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, have hit the ball out of the park once again with their fresh, fun and fabulous take on the witty, sexy classic, Chicago.
Originally staged in 1975 with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as the fame-seeking, jailbird murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, this fine musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb – who also created Cabaret and Kiss of the Spiderwoman – became an even bigger success when it was revived, revitalised and greatly sexed-up, in 1996. That revival is now on record as the second longest-running show in Broadway history, behind The Phantom of the Opera.
KickstArt’s slick and sassy Chicago, with set design by the unfailingly impressive Greg King, is not a franchise production, which has allowed award-winning director Steven Stead and his exuberant cast relatively free rein to play with the wonderful score and characters.
As Stead acknowledges in programme notes, KickstArt has created a world where the borders of fantasy and reality are porous, “where they bleed into one another”.
The result is magic – a mix of elements from the 1975 original production, the current super-sexy, international franchise production and genius Stead’s own novel twists.
Stead’s Chicago had a relatively short rehearsal time but one would never have guessed it, so tight is its flow, so strong its performances, and so impressive its dance routines.
And as for the nine-member band positioned centrestage, led by pianist and musical director Evan Roberts – wow! What a super-tight, terrific team!
They dominate the bandstand set in the centre of a stage where performances unfold below and around them, props being deftly wheeled on and off by characters.
Choreography, often nodding to the genius of the show’s original choreographer-director Bob Fosse, is a strong part of this musical and marks a high point for Durban choreographer Janine Bennewith, who is also among the dancers.
A good ensemble cast is peppered with fine performances, not least Jason Ralph as a suitably suave and slimeball lawyer, Billy Flynn, who wins cases by turning his clients into media-made celebs. Ralph, in great voice, will be remembered for his title role in Sweeney Todd in Durban, for which he won a Durban Theatre Award.
Kudos, too, to Charon Williams-Ros, who shines as “the countess of the clink”, Matron ‘Mama’ Morton. Sadly, this production marks her swansong, as Charon is scheduled to move to England in May. She will be sorely missed.
Special mention must also go to Bryan Hiles, sporting fake tummy and fake bald spot, as a suitably dishevelled Amos Hart, the put-upon, unassuming mechanic husband of the selfish, man-eating Roxie. He gives a moving, marvellous rendition of the poignant Mister Cellophane late in the show.
Another standout is “sob sister” reporter Mary Sunshine (Anne Marie Clulow in wonderful voice). This is a role usually played by a man in drag, but for whom Stead has built in his own fun, little twist.
On to the main attractions – one being Durban’s Jessica Sole who, while officially now based in Cape Town, is my new favourite Durban performer after standout, award-winning roles in KickstArt’s Into the Wood, Shrek The Musical and I Love You, You’re Perfect Now Change (a revival soon, pretty-please, KickstArt?).
As Roxie, Sole is in good voice and by turns cold, kooky, comical, cute, conniving and cocky. And, of course, sizzlingly hot – no more so than in her showstopping Roxie routine.
She performs it in in a super-short, silvery sliver of a costume (take a bow designer Neil Stuart Harris) that makes her look like a million dollars. I do hope, though, that someone has, by now, taken a pair of scissors to a distracting piece of thread that was dangling from the hem on opening night.
Sole is also wonderful playing Flynn’s ventriloquist dummy at a press meeting – one of many standout scenes in a show packed with them, this being a musical vaudeville.
It’s a three-ringed circus, as Flynn says in his dazzling Razzle Dazzle, surrounded by showgirls encircling him with fans of white feathers.
Big back-slap too, to Katy Moore, who, fresh from winning a Durban Theatre Award for her feisty Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods, makes for a ballsy Velma.
She is fun throughout but most impresses in her opening All That Jazz, her frenetic “act of desperation” routine and in duet with Williams-Ros for Class, a great song dropped from the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago.
Also featuring Marion Loudon, Liesl Coppin, Adam Dore, Danny Guselli and Nathan Kruger, among others, Chicago is lit by Tina le Roux and has sound design by Ross van Wyk.
See this show and spread the word, far and wide, that you know a whoopee spot where the talent is hot. It is Durban’s Sneddon Theatre, where Chicago runs until April 30.
Book today at Computicket – tickets are flying and if you delay, you may just miss out on what is likely to prove the highlight of the local theatre-going year!