Murder usually makes for good entertainment. The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s (AUTS) winter production, Chicago, pairs calculated murder with desire for fame and sex. Its characters prance and sing against a ritzy, prohibition-era backdrop with callous indifference to their crimes. This showy exterior, however, hides the fact that satire, not glamour, is what sustains Chicago – a feature of the story thankfully highlighted by director Debora Friedmann.
The musical turns around Roxie Hart (Vanessa Drunsnitzer), a chorus girl who murders her lover and convinces her husband to take the rap, only to be found out and sent to prison. Facing a trial that might result in a death sentence, Hart is desperate – but not remorseful. Her associates on the cell block are a colourful array of criminals, all of whom are jailed for similar reasons. Mama (Nour Malek) controls the jail, but Roxie’s real nemesis is Velma Kelly (Natalie Aspinall). A vaudeville-washout turned murderer, Velma hopes to capitalize on the press obsession with her case to revive her career. This is Roxie’s plan, too: though she initially contacts celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn (Kenny Wong) to help clear her name, she quickly begins to pine for glamour and recognition.
“[I] decided to simplify everything and rely solely on the movement and the acting to tell the story.”
AUTS’ production began cautiously on opening night, with actors taking time to ease into their roles, and their voices. A few gags fell short, but Roxie’s arrival in prison marked the turning point. The cast came into their own with inmates dancing and singing the “Cell Block Tango,” an act that puts a humorous twist on a catalogue of murders. Generally, the singing in AUTS’ Chicago is commendable. Especially strong performances came from Drunsnitzer as Roxie and Jessica Eckstadt as Mary Sunshine, a naïve but loveable columnist who delivers her songs in a comically grand falsetto.
The show overall was more impressive when it came to the less theatrical sequences, particularly those that satirized the corruption of the American justice system.
The success of character-driven shows like Chicago relies on strong individual performances. Part of the charm of the AUTS production is its pared-down aesthetics, which focus our attention on these compelling characters. The “Cell Block Tango” routine takes place on the minimalist, jazz-bar set, cleverly lit with showbiz spotlights or cabaret shades of red; the simplicity unclutters any distractions. In an interview with The Daily, Friedmann discussed this set choice, stating that she “decided to simplify everything and rely solely on the movement and the acting to tell the story.” Friedmann explained that, accordingly, rehearsals for the show were “focused on training the hell out of the performers,” noting that this production differs from more typical Broadway productions in its simplicity.
In relying on movement and acting to tell the story, the show was particularly successful. However, the show overall was more impressive when it came to the less theatrical sequences, particularly those that satirized the corruption of the American justice system. Presumed innocent by Mama, a Hungarian woman (Colby Koecher) asks, “Will Uncle Sam like me?” in an increasingly desperate tone before being hanged. Disturbingly too, the press corps is choreographed to bob around like marionettes, manipulated by lawyers who distract them from the truth. Finally, in the closing act, Velma winks at the audience and says, “America is a fair and just country.” There is open laughter from the audience.
After a year marked by judicial failures in the U.S., the satire is particularly poignant. The strength of AUTS’ Chicago is that it underlines the message of the original play, but does so while incorporating the best traditions from the Broadway version: it’s funny, it’s sexed-up, and the music is catchy. Chicago definitely entertains, but it also points to the disturbing link between trials and show business, provoking us to reflect on what lies behind the act.