This modern classic tells the story of Cook County jail and the notorious women on murderers row in a jazzed up prohibition era. Filled with catchy tunes, a myriad of jazz hands and a whole lot of sequins, this is Chicago.
Windmill Theatre Company’s production of Chicago opened on Saturday night to a full house of waiting theatre fans. Opening night nerves were obviously at a high, wide eyes and heavy breathing evident from the back row, but that is certainly understandable. After a few trips and missed cues, the nerves started to settle, but unfortunately the mistakes were in abundance.
Taking on a show like Chicago, with such a strong Broadway and Hollywood history, you have to nail it. There is nowhere to hide in a show where every audience member knows all the lyrics back-to-front, and unfortunately this production didn’t quite hit the mark. There were a few too many bumps in the jazzy road.
The vocal performances of Velma Kelly (Eilannin Black), Roxie Hart (Emily Mignot), Billy Flynn (Jonathan Guthrie-Jones), Mary Sunshine (Bethany Eloise) and Mama Morton (Shanelle Jacobs) were incredible. Their characters really shone through during their musical numbers and allowed their talent to let fly.
The ensemble deserves huge props for the sheer number of costume changes alone, let alone the difficulty of those costume changes and the fact that some were done in full view of the 500 strong audience. It was certainly a bit of a mismatched ensemble, but undeniably filled with some flair and emerging talent.
The vocals were great, the choreography was good but there were far too many bodies on stage for this show to flow well. There were a number of occasions where dancers physically fell over each other or collided with one another and it was because the space was too small, definitely over crowded and far too complicated. Taking out a few ensemble dancers would free up a little space and give the performers the room they need to flip those hips, kick those kicks and all that jazz.
The direction by Tyler Hess was definitely crafty at times, but again the space impeded on the casts capabilities. Whether it was a matter of limited rehearsals at the Drum Theatre, or just a desire to pack the stage with talent, it just didn’t work. There were moments of great creativity by Hess, but there were also moments of pure confusion. Floating set made it difficult enough for the cast to move about, so having entire ensembles worth of cast move on and off the stage for little or no reward was really just a distraction.
The jazzed up choreography by Kirra Sibel was definitely fun. Some old favourites were combined with a modern vision and had there been a little more room then the execution would have been just that bit better. The inclusion of a ballet number was an unexpected but welcomed addition and of course, who doesn’t love a good tap-dance routine.
The set design had a unique and interesting twist where the audience could see performers changing costumes on level platforms behind bars and electronic flats that served as both jail cell walls and light up back drops. Despite a few crashes and bashes, the set design should be commended, but it wasn’t really all that functional.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this production was the use of a moveable stage front, which would lower and raise large pieces of set and performers. It was painfully slow moving and at times, had both the audience and performers looking at their watches. Performers had to fill in far too much dead air. During the finale number, apparently Velma and Roxie were dancing on stage, but no one could see a thing as a very impressive but extremely unnecessary ‘Chicago’ sign was raised in front of them. And despite this interesting set, there was so much more room to be made with a little less surrounding the performers.
Although visually stunning at times, the use of mirrors in the set construction was a little off-putting. When audience members can see themselves in stage mirrors or when lights bounce directly in to your eyes, it can be very unsettling. We go to see the performers, not our own reflections or be blinded by surprise lighting mishaps.
Unfortunately, large portions of songs were sung in the dark, lines of dialogue were missed and actors left guessing purely because the lighting seemed to miss quite a few beats. Follow spots disappeared, whole lighting cues seemed to be missed and it left everyone confused about who was saying what, where we were supposed to look and who should enter the stage when.
Tyler Hess should be commended on the unique twist on an old favourite in the costume department. It is very difficult to make something old look new and fresh again, but it was absolutely achieved here. From the opening number, to the use of newspaper print for the press costumes, from the prisoner’s outfits to the showgirl extravaganzas, the costumes in this show were really quite spectacular.
Chicago has to be done with such precision, and unfortunately Windmill Theatre Company’s production falls a little short. But after those opening night nerves have worn off, there is no saying what might come of this production; it certainly has the potential.