Sinners sizzle in ‘Chicago’No one can disagree that it was a “Sexy, Sassy, Seductive, Sensual, Sinuous, Sleazy, Slinky, Sophisticated, Sultry” show. “Chicago,” the musical, was addictive, and I was tap-dancing myself out of the National Theater of Korea on Mount Namsan the other night.
The performance was loaded with passion and pizzazz, more energetic than the one I had seen in London’s West End scarcely a month earlier. The performers, Emma Clifford as Roxie Hart, Lisa Donmall as Velma Kelly and Cavin Cornwall as Billy Flynn, were interacting spontaneously with the night’s audience, making it the best of my three “Chicago” experiences: the West End show, the Hollywood film and Friday night in Seoul.
The show opens with the introduction: “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. You are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery ― all the things that we hold dear to our hearts.”
In this cynical comedy by the late Bob Fosse, Roxie and Velma are imprisoned on charges of murdering a lover and a husband. Billy, the girls’ avaricious lawyer, wins their acquittals, making them tabloid stars of 1920’s Chicago and sneering at the American justice system.
As Roxie becomes the world’s irresistible reformed sinner, the musical claimed, “And the audience loves her.” Roxie replies, “And I love the audience. And the audience loves me for loving them. And I love the audience for loving me. And we just love each other.”
Inside the theater, that’s what happened. The audience and performers just loved each other.
The musical’s London tour company performed in Japan before coming to Seoul. All three lead performers and Garth Hall, the band conductor, attributed their dynamism to the Korean audience.
Witnessing the different audiences’ reactions was revolutionary, Mr. Hall said. While the Japanese were reserved, only applauding at the end, the Koreans have been a vibrant and spontaneous audience, he said. “I guess it has to do with national characteristic, and I just loved it,” he continued. “Koreans are excitable, vocal and that is absolutely fun for us. It just lifts the show.”
Screens on the sides of the stage ran Korean subtitles, helping the non-English speaking audience follow along. A show with a lot of comedy never works 100 percent for foreign viewers, Mr. Hall admitted, but he said “I think we are great this time, because laughs tend to come at the right times.”
The audience had been well-prepared for the show, owing to the film version of the dancing spectacle. While Hollywood’s approach was to “Give ’em the Old Razzle-dazzle,” the musical challenged the audience with unpretentious voices, splendid dances and refined acting.
The musical’s stage set-up is minimal. A brass band sits at center stage, and nothing more than two ladders occupies the stage wings; the actors use them to spice up the performance. On the simplified stage, the musical became a series of games for each performer, and each has the game in hand by singing, dancing and acting.
Compared to the London performance, the show in Korea offers a more attractive combination of acting, singing and dancing. Watching Roxie’s exaggerated performance on the West End stage made me uneasy. The Seoul performance was more comfortable and inspired more empathy. As Roxie and Velma on the Korean stage, Ms. Clifford and Ms. Donmall were fresh, though not raw.
Before stepping onstage Friday, Mr. Cornwall, playing Billy, said he wanted to create an “intimate show” and he achieved his goal. His performance of “We Both Reach for the Gun” as well as “All I Care About Is Love” ruled the stage.
Only Debra Michaels’s performance as Mama Morton disappointed me slightly. Perhaps because Queen Latifah in the film left such a strong impression, both Seoul’s and London’s Mama Mortons were not as satisfying. Ms. Michaels was too weak to keep the Cook County Prison and audience under her thumb because her singing was low-key, her acting too understated.
Of course, it is improper to compare the movie to the stage show, particularly in the case of “Cell Block Tango.” In the film, that number sizzled, thanks to sensational visuals formed by many close-up shots. In Seoul, the six sexy inmates did a moderate job.
And yet, Martin Callaghan’s performance as Roxie’s forgiving husband Amos was more than enough to pay off the disappointment. His solo “Mister Cellophane” was the show-stopper, superior than on the West End or Hollywood. Pathos and drollery are contradictory terms, but his dry jest added zest.
“Chicago” will run in Seoul to Aug. 3 and in Daegu Aug. 6 to 10. Visit www.chicagokorea.co.kr for ticket information.
by Ser Myo-ja