Musicals, Stage

‘Chicago’. What’s Gen Z got to to do with it?

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Humanity is continuing on its path towards oblivion, hurtling from the present to the future until the inevitable collapse of the universe itself.  We, the homo sapiens, are pushing through time alongside each other.

This feeling of comradrie as we stand hand-in-hand on the edge of the metaphorical precipice, experiencing our world with only each other to confirm its realness – is exacerbated by the climatic entrance into a new decade.

As we look back at the 20th century, we use ten-year timeslots to categorise different trends or movements so that we can confidently ascribe something as belonging to “the eighties” or “the fifties”. But do we ever truly stop to consider their reality? For those entering the 1920s, how were they to know it would be decade of cultural, artistic, political revolution?

They did not. They stood, tentatively, on the precipice of time just as we do now. Hoping. The 1920s, to a modern reflector, certainly appears to be a time of revolution, of fervour, of an indescribable but unstoppable energy. 

At the same time, however, the myth-making of time periods runs rampant to an infuriating extent and is indeed a key ingredient in the rise of populism world-wide, as people desperately cling to their dreams of yester-year.

This toxic nostalgia is, understandably, demonstrated by old people who confuse the excitement of their own youth with the actual state of the world at the time of their youth. However, as we enter the 2020s, this dangerous conflation is evident in the yearnings of older people for decades such as the fifties, forties, even thirties… but those who yearned for the days of the 1920s are mostly dead.

Crucially, this means that the 1920s exist beyond our collective view of the past, beyond the optimistic re-imagination of society’s most elderly and perhaps, even beyond the cynicism shown by younger people towards this nostalgia.

How can we have a solid grasp on that moment in time? As we hurtle into the future, how can we know if this revolutionary fervour and incredible energy was actually real? We will never know and can only base our understanding on imitations and renderings that try their best to capture it.

Does Chicago, running at the Arts Centre, Melbourne February 23 capture it? Yes.

The musical, composed by John Kander, with lyrics by Fred Ebb and choreography by Bob Fosse is set in the 1920s in prohibition era Chicago (the first production having been in 1975).

It tells the story of Roxie Hart (Natalia Bassingthwaite) in the fall-out from the murder of her lover, Fred Casely, after he threatens to walk out on her. As Roxie rises in fame and stakes a name in the business for herself (thanks to the resulting media frenzy), – employing the charismatic Billy Flynn (Jason Donovan) to save her from the gallows.

Public interest in the original sultry vaudevillain, Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey) quickly deflates. The musical does not just explore how the women deal with fame – but also the crime, lust, wickendess, corruption and chaos that Chicago represents.

When I consume my media and entertainment – be it music, film, theatre, literature – I am searching for the feeling. The best a critic of any of these fields can do is try and compartmentalise every aspect of what they are being told to analyse, and often hopelessly explain how things work, and how that feeling is achieved.

My sister tried to do this, and pointed to “the all-black costumes” that “gave it a sleek, clean look” accentuating the musical’s sinful nature.

Certainly for her, an innocent young girl of only 14 and 18 months, yet to be permanently stained by adulthood’s ungodliness, the entire experience must have felt like taking a wayward trip down a dark alleyway and stumbling upon something shocking yet exciting, scandalous yet breathtaking.

She was impressed by the lighting, too, which she said was “imaginative and well-realised”. Her favourite character was unsurprising – Amos Hart, played by Rodney Dobson, who did a fine job in portraying the much-loved character. He did not bring anything particularly new to Amos, but as they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. She also mentioned the set as being “well-designed, with the incorporation of the orchestra being well-done, elevating the humour”. 

Any lover of music will find solace in the fact the orchestra are given their due attention, placed smack-bang on the stage. This was very good. Instead of submitting to the pathetic convention of musical theatre that ensures the orchestra wallow in the underground like the servants of Hades, underappreciated and almost ignored, the audience can delight in their talent just as they do the actors and dancers.  

As you can see, my darling sister Lucie tried to do the job of your average critic, attempting to discern the ingredients behind the musical that created its undeniable energy. It is an admirable undertaking because it means that you have to somewhat distance yourself from whatever you are there to criticise. Instead of being part of the relationship between performance and audience, you must watch that relationship from afar.

When I was asked to do this review, I realised I could do that – think too hard about everything that was happening in front of me. But I realised that that is not who I am. I was put on this Earth to feel, and so, I felt. I felt the spirit of the musical inject excitement in me. Perhaps, I even got close to feeling the same thing those people did all those years ago, in the 1920s: a time of hysteria, frenzy, lust, anger, energy…standing on the precipice of time, and leaping off of it into the craziness of our culture, the impossibilities of our world. 

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