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CHICAGO (article first published : 2005-04-30)

Move over Phantom! Move over Mamma Mia! With Chicago, currently running at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, producer Hazel Feldman has proved that we can go it alone in South Africa on an international scale given the local talent under the direction of a major production’s originators.

The international team responsible for the original production - director Scott Faris, choreographer Gary Chryst and music director Corin Buckeridge – worked with the cast for seven weeks. According to publicist Debbi de Souza, over 900 people were auditioned and Scott Faris and Gary Chryst were highly impressed with the talent available, saying that it was on a par with any other country in the world. And they should know – as they’ve travelled extensively while creating the production. They were also notably moved by the generous community spirit existing amongst South African performers.

Chicago is based on the true story of two murderers whose crimes took place in 1924 in Chicago. The play started off as a comedy which reached Broadway in 1926, going on to a film version with a revival in 1942 titled Roxie Hart and starring Ginger Rodgers. In 1996, the musical Chicago opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. Some 11 years later, having gained Tony, Laurence Olivier and Grammy awards with 14,000 performances and productions worldwide (eight in different languages), we are seeing this fast-moving and highly sassy show on home ground.

A prison is not normally the kind of setting to inspire theatre-lovers to attend in droves, but John Lee Beatty’s scenic design, coupled with William Ivey Long’s costumes and Ken Billington’s stunning lighting design, produce an exciting and exhilarating visual presentation that mirrors the Vaudeville era.

Now the performers. If you see Amra-Faye Wright’s name on a billboard you know that your money will be well spent. She’s her usual glorious sexy self – long, long legs, sassy humour and stunning dancing. Samantha Peo, petite and spunky, is an excellent kittenish foil for the blonde bombshell, and matches her mood for mood and step by exquisite step. As Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, they play the two murderesses.

As their smooth-tongued lawyer, Billy Flynn, Drummond Marais is a perfect casting choice. Elegantly ironic and sophisticated, his is a commanding performance perfectly interpreting the role of a man who is solely driven by money – he also looks pretty good surrounded in ostrich feathers! Ilse Klink is full-voiced and gutsy as the openly self-interested Matron “Mama” Morton and Pierre van Heerden won the audience’s sympathy with his genuine portrayal of the hapless Amos Hart. The secret of Mary Sunshine doesn’t allow us to appreciate KJ Haupt’s first song to the full, A Little Bit of Good, but that’s another story!

Great to see the brilliant musical brain of Bryan Schimmel back in South Africa as musical director. Doing good justice to the Kander and Ebb score, he is as much performer as conductor in this show, which has been cleverly designed to include the tiered platform of the 14-piece orchestra as part of the action.

The musical numbers are legendary – from the stirring All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango, Roxie, When You’re Good to Mama and Razzle Dazzle to the amusingly dramatic Me and My Baby and the gentler Mr Cellophane and My Own Best Friend . One of the highlights for me was Class, as Matron and Velma sadly decide that fine manners and good breeding have become things of the past.

Styled in Bob Fosse’s uniquely dramatic and simplistic approach to dance, the choreography is slick and beautifully controlled. KZN theatregoers will remember the magical skills of Timothy le Roux who worked with the Playhouse Dance Company and later with the Fantastic Flying Fish Dance Company. Also having performed in Durban previously are Brandon Eilers who appeared in The Spirit of the Dance and The Spirit of Broadway with the International Irish Tap Company; Diani Joubert who worked with Fantastic Flying Fish and appeared in Grass Gardens and Sibusiso Radebe who was a guest dancer for FFFDC. Pietermaritzburg born Duane Alexander is also one of the Chicago ensemble members.

Chicago runs at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre until July 3 after which it moves to Artscape in Cape Town for a season from July 19 to September 11. Shows run from Tuesdays to Fridays at 20h00 with Saturdays and 17h00 and 21h00 and Sundays at 15h00 and 19h00. (No shows on Monday). Tickets prices are R150, R250 and R350 (Sunday matinees - R100, R200 and R300). Booking at Computicket outlets nationwide, Computicket Johannesburg on 011-340 8100, Computicket Cape Town on 083 915 8000 or on-line at www.computicket.com. Block bookings from Johannesburg Civic Theatre (Glynnis Davies) on 011 877 6800 and Artscape, Cape Town - Showtime Management on 011 883 8688.

Now that the Playhouse complex is on track to reposition itself as one of the top theatre venues in the country, hopefully we will see productions of this calibre including Durban in its touring programme. – Caroline Smart.




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