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Updated: May 21, 2014 16:02 IST

And all that jazz..: 'Chicago'

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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A scene from 'Chicago'. Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu A scene from 'Chicago'. Photo: R. Ravindran

Gritty and grungy, 'Chicago' is replete with song and scandal, colour and crime

Stagefright Productions (Chennai)

You had better “lick your hair/ And wear your buckle shoes/ And all that Jazz.” Because the vaudeville’s coming to town. So, “start the car/ I know a whoopee spot/ Where the gin is cold/ But the piano’s hot.” Like the ‘Chicago’ soundtrack, we would love to say “It’s just a noisy hall/ Where there’s a nightly brawl” but since that’s not strictly true, we’ll be content with telling you that this promises to be a rollicking show. After all, it follows an unbeatable formula: a tried and tested story told with catchy lyrics, dramatic music with lots of high energy dancing.

The play, originally written in 1926 by crime reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, is rooted in fact, since she based it on crimes that she had covered in her career. And, truth certainly is stranger than fiction, judging by the colourful stories and larger-than-life characters that ‘Chicago’ highlights. It helps that the story is set in the gritty, grungy, spectacular Chicago city of the Jazz age, replete with scandal, corruption and crime.

Made into a Broadway musical in 1975, ‘Chicago’ was so successful it was made into a movie in 2002, with a star-studded cast that included Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere in the lead roles, besides featuring Queen Latifah, Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs.

Not surprisingly, it went on to win six Academy awards. After all, who can resist a well-spun story, pivoting on crimes of passion and beautiful people? Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart are both on death row for murder. Velma’s a star vaudevillian. Roxie’s a housewife with big dreams. All that’s between them and the electric chair is a charming, wily, maverick lawyer whose biggest gift is the ability to ‘Give ’em the old razzle dazzle.’ As he creates a storm of publicity around Roxie to gain public sympathy, (“Bead and feather ’em/ How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”) a host of other quirky characters sing and swing their way through the story.

Broadway in Chennai? It’s certainly an ambitious project. The trick clearly, is that razzle dazzle. Stagefright’s working hard to give all of you a “show that’s so splendiferous/ Row after row will crow vociferous.”

(Stagefright Productions was formed in 2004 with the staging of the musical ‘Grease’. Since then, the group has produced about 20 different shows, ranging from comedies to musicals to short plays to supper theatre events to full-length dramas.)

Director's cut: Freddy Koikaran

‘Grease’, which you did in 2004, was really well received. Will ‘Chicago’ live up to this?

I certainly expect it to! After ‘Grease’, I’ve tried to stage musicals whenever possible, and so I staged a play on the life of Beethoven called ‘The Sounds of Silence’ in 2004 and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ in 2007, both of which I did with my close friend and choreographer, Denver Anthony Nicholas. I absolutely love the idea of musicals, where music, dance and theatre combine to present a story that people can relate to and enjoy. Staging musicals excites me in a way that is inexplicable, because it combines my interest in theatre and music.

Has your choreography been influenced by the Broadway musical, the movie or both?

As Denver, who also co-director for this show, will be the first to admit, the choreography in both the stage and film versions of ‘Chicago’ is clearly fantastic. Having said that, he made a conscious decision to avoid replicating the choreography from either one, and he has instead worked on making it his own.

Yes, we have been influenced by the film version, simply because that’s what we have seen and fallen in love with.

Does staging a musical pose special challenges? You need to find actor-singer-dancers. Is there enough of this kind of hyphenate-talent in Chennai?

Don’t even get me started about the challenges! Staging a musical poses challenges that are huge when compared to staging a production that only showcases dance or histrionics or only music. However, let me clarify that these challenges are more set, lighting, and sound-related. We believe that there are talented performers in Chennai, and so we conduct rigorous auditions to find people who have at least a minimal proficiency in either acting and dancing or else in acting and singing.

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