Ask a group of music theatre lovers what they know of Chu Chin Chow, and the responses would likely range from, “did G&S write that?”, to perhaps “yes – ah, is it famous for a long run in London?”, or the more likely response, “never heard of it”.
Written in 1916 by Geelong-born actor/director Oscar Asche, Chu Chin Chow is a retelling of ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Victoria (GSOV) are proud to present the show in its 100th anniversary year. Director and choreographer Robert Ray is all too familiar with the challenges which arise from staging a rarely seen gem. ‘It is such an unknown work to all of us, ‘says Ray. ‘Much easier to do Hello Dolly or The Mikado as it is all there. With Chu Chin Chow finding the orchestral parts alone took us about six months. Then finding a way to do it today to today’s audiences. The dialogue is a bit dated, a mixture of Biblical and Elizabethan speak, with ye’s and yea’s. Melvyn Morrow wrote a new version which overcomes many of the problems. It is a play circa 1923, about staging the show in Australia. There are many delicious references to the bard of J.C. Williamson’s for example. Also in 1916, it was a very, very lavish show, with over 90 in the cast. The challenge was to do it with a set and costume budget of $2200, and about one third of the cast size. The original production was spectacular, with even live snakes on stage!”.
Cast members have come to the show with varying degrees of knowledge about its story and background. Summer Bowen, who portrays Zharat Al-Kulub, recalls her first exposure to the piece: “I first heard of Chu Chin Chow in 2013 at an Arts Centre exhibition on Australian war time music which featured a cast photo from the J.C. Williamson production. Shortly afterwards it was mentioned again in Miriam Gordon-Stewart’s incredible recital “Songs For Robbie” based on the grandmother Eileen Robbins’ memoir. Oscar Ashe invited the 10-year-old Eileen to join the Chu Chin Chow chorus at His Majesty’s Theatre but her parents objected to the racy costumes”.
In describing the show, Ray adds, “It has been described as an ‘adult pantomime’…Chu Chin Chow is like a Saturday afternoon thrilling adventure musical – swashbuckling, funny, and completely over the top”.
GSOV have been presenting productions for over 80 years, and in a company with such a grand history, cast and crew aalways find that there’s something which keeps bringing them back to GSOV. “There is a great feeling of comradeship in this cast”, explains Ron Pidcock, who plays the role of Kasim Baba. “We are conscious that we are recreating something forgotten, and at the same time creating something new, for the libretto has been adapted by Melvyn Morrow (Shout, Dusty) especially for us”.
So, if like this writer, you were until now unfamiliar with the rare gem that is Chu Chin Chow, it will certainly be worth a trip to Geelong or to Elwood to take it in. “Chu Chin Chow is a pantomime for adults full of gorgeous colour and music, very much like the 1940s old-Hollywood film “The Thief of Bagdad”, says Bowen, “If you haven’t read the original Arabian Nights, you might be surprised by the violent plot that has been watered down in popular film adaptations in the same way you might be shocked by the original Brothers Grimm fairytales in German. Sexual tension simmers throughout, slaves and harems are the norm, and because love is bought with ‘a bidder’s gold’ two couples yearn for each other for afar”.
Chu Chin Chow plays at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre on July 22-23, and has its Melbourne season at the Phoenix Theatre in Elwood from July 28-31.
Tickets are on sale through www.gsov.org.au/ccc