Part of the thrill that comes from live musical theatre is knowing that something could go wrong at any moment, but rarely does. The best theatre uses this to its advantage, radiating a sense of jubilant spontaneity that wriggles its way into the audience’s hearts and leaves them humming the songs on the walk home. The Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society’s (AUTS) production of the 1975 musical, Chicago, fits this description with a top-quality cast and production values to match.
Set almost entirely inside of a 1920s jazz bar “where the gin is cold and the piano’s hot,” Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart—a young, resourceful singer who gets sent to prison after murdering her philandering lover. She gets introduced to an ensemble of murderous women and a media-savvy lawyer who takes a special interest in Roxie’s case. As that case becomes famous, she begins to angle for a place in the spotlight while faking her innocence in order to avoid the death penalty.
The acting is top-to-bottom great and impeccably cast. Vanessa Drunsnitzer plays Roxie with the right amount of ingenuity and malice to keep the audience constantly guessing what her true intentions are. Velma Kelly (Natalie Aspinall) serves as a mirror to Roxie, simultaneously more experienced and vulnerable, doing a spot-on version of the brassy sexuality that typifies the 1920s. Rounding out the main players are Kenny Wong as the aforementioned lawyer, who manages to shine despite being plagued with microphone problems during the entire performance; Nour Malek as the de facto mother hen to the female prisoners with just the right amount of authority; and Olivier Bishop-Mercier as Roxie’s feckless husband—nervous, and woefully unable to navigate the world that his wife has thrown him into.
The ensemble cast is—remarkably—equally well-rounded. Due to the high number of ancillary roles in the production, each member gets a chance to display his or her talents solo, and each one fully delivers—especially the women in “Cell Block Tango” and Jessica Eckstadt as Mary Sunshine, whose song “A Little Bit of Good” is the most technically impressive vocal performance in the entire production.
The choreography doesn’t stray too much from the Bob Fosse playbook, much to its benefit. Director and choreographer Debora Friedmann must have spent countless hours with the entire cast, nailing the acrobatic sexuality of Fosse’s original moves. As a result, the cast clicks as a single unit, with each of the 17 performers seeming to know the exact placement of every other cast member and prop on the stage, working at a level of professionalism that you don’t normally see in student theatre.
The lighting might be the most impressive aspect of the entire play, adding an extra layer of nuance and dressing up the stage to alternate between a prison, law office, courtroom, and nightclub. Crisp spotlights of the jazz bar fade to striking reds and blues of the prison. Little flourishes like flashing red during a murder, and a spotlight that comically avoids a character who sings about being invisible make it stand out without taking too much focus away from the cast.
Props are largely utilitarian, mainly serving the masterful blocking outlined in original productions. Friedmann adds to the whole jazz bar aesthetic by keeping the orchestra on the stage for the entire show, which gives the non-bar scenes a feeling of dreamy musicality. The orchestra itself is also wonderful, full of brass and catchy piano that manages to shine even outside of the original songs.
Really, the only flaws that exist beyond the aforementioned microphone problems are those that come from the source material itself. The first act is a little thin on plot, which makes the second act feel rushed. However, the plot, like that of most musicals, mainly serves as a vessel for the songs and doesn’t drag the production level down. All in all, Chicago is one hell of a ride.
Chicago will be performed from Thursday, Jan. 22 to Saturday, Jan. 24 and from Thursday, Jan. 29 to Saturday, Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at Moyse Hall. Visit www.autsmcgill.com for ticket information.