PUBLISHED 30 January 2023
Once again it was a privilege to see AKS’ production at the Lowther Gardens. And, once more, I had to pinch myself to accept that what we were seeing on stage was the work of under-eighteens – some well under. The standard of singing and dancing - combined with the lighting, costumes, and props - were all worthy of a professional performance, as I am sure everyone who witnessed it will agree. There are so many people to thank – the parents who organize the raffle, backstage volunteers, make-up volunteers, set builders, stage management, the marketing team who publicise the show, the long-suffering ticket sellers - that it is practically impossible to name-check everyone. But the whole thing is a fine example of team effort and the willingness of all in the AKS family to support each other. As Velma says so rightly - ‘I can’t do it alone’.
The reality of the sleazy crimes which form the framework of ‘Chicago’ shows how Kander and Ebb could spin gold from grim, unpromising material. The real stories behind the (only marginally anonymized) hard-bitten murderesses in the prohibition-era Second City are tragic and disturbing. But from these sad tales, the authors conjure up a spectacular and glittering cavalcade of light and colour, with Kander’s show-stopper Jazz-Age-style melodies having seeped into our consciousnesses even if (like me) you have never seen the show before.
You can’t go wrong by starting with ‘All That Jazz’ – well, of course, you could but the choreography, timing, and singing were so impressive that it was well deserving of its cheering applause. The chorus girls were stunning in appearance and movement. Taking centre stage, Alex W (complete with Louise Brooks bangs) with her marvellously powerful and expressive voice and stage presence, portrayed a man-eating siren of breathtaking sensuous potency. I felt a bit sorry for any males in the vicinity, but the vamps were squired by a brave ensemble of vested muscle-men who looked as if they could take care of themselves OK.
Which perhaps is more than can be said for poor Amos Hart, that loyal, hardworking, innocent schmuck portrayed with tenderness by Alex C. Tasked with protecting his heartless wife Roxie (Scarlett P) who has shot her lover, Fred Casely (Charlie S), poor Amos, blinded by foolish love scrapes together money to deposit into the bank of Billy Flynn, lawyer to the stars. Blonde bombshell, Roxie, is, of course, far too selfish and glamorous to do any money-raising herself even though she pulled the trigger. Alex portrayed well the tragic inconsequentiality of his life as ‘Mister Roxie’ in his plaintive ‘Mr Cellophane’ solo.
Scarlett P (only in Year 10) convinced throughout in the demanding main part - undertaking various roles within the one character: the coquette, the girl-next-door, the victim, and the hard-bitten gum-chewing tough girl. In each incarnation, we sensed a person who was in some ways as much a victim as a villain, but always her ‘own best friend’. Scarlett’s stage presence, singing, and dancing were impressive in every mood portrayed.
We all enjoyed the backstories of the imprisoned ladies as their tales were cleverly interwoven into a series of tableaux as the prisoners danced so smoothly and with fabulous synchronicity in their ‘Cell Block Tango’. The Cook County female prison is presided over by Mama Morton, the Matron; a sort of substitute mother for the girls, though hardly a model example of parenting – she was played spiritedly by Liberty D who looked fearsome and/or sympathetic when required so that they we were left in little doubt that ‘when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you’. It is she who arranges for the condemned women to be defended by the slipperiest of lawyers, the ‘old bamboozler’ himself, Billy Flynn, portrayed with a sort of calculated nonchalance by Louis G.
I was surprised to read on Louis’ profile that, at his ripe old age, he was making his stage debut. It was good to see how he tackled a role which would require all his ingenuity. Straight off the blocks he opted for a role which would take him out his comfort zone and test all his skills. And yet, he did it. By slow degrees, this dramatic ingenue went ‘method’ and transmogrified himself into a grandstanding, dressily ostentatious narcissist with only a hazy grasp of detail. He was a revelation, and yet perhaps not. In the words of George Bush Jr, it would be a mistake to ‘mis-underestimate’ Louis’ capacity for keeping his powder dry and surprising us all. When he was on stage, you almost couldn’t look at anyone else. As to his voice – well, where has he been all these years? It certainly razzle-dazzled us.
Few people can have failed to be impressed by the contributions of the murderesses and vaudevillian chorus girls. Such was their transformation that I struggled to recognize many of them. I must mention Katie L’s convincing foreign tongue and beautiful balletic ‘death’ (a clever way of disguising a grim reality). I enjoyed Harriet A’s newsy interjections with her RKO microphone. It was good to see Rhys N and Jacob B taking principal roles too. Younger students will, I’m sure, have been inspired by their elders, and they too were vital adjuncts to the staging, suggesting the febrile excitement of reporters and bystanders in the lawless Chicago streets.
Ms. Vidotti’s wonderful choreography was an essential component of this show – in which dance is so integral. We thrilled at Velma’s (Alex W) dancing as she demonstrated to Roxie the moves she made with her sister – too many varieties to mention, beautifully executed. The dancing of the girls in Act 2 in their beautiful flapper dressers was a great highlight, but arguably best of all, the Busby Berkeley tribute with the girls carrying those amazing black ostrich feathers which they fluttered in regimented sequence. Spectacular – where does all that showbizzy ephemera come from? Congratulations to the props and costume department too (well done indeed, Mrs Coulon and her team). Dancers need partners so let us not forget the macho contributions of the boys, balletically lifting the ladies skyward.
There’s a lot of energetic music in this show, and the band worked tirelessly (and unseen below stairs) under the expert baton of Mr. Brown. Many thanks are due to them for their vital and seamless contributions. There is so much music to rehearse and get right that, before the first show meeting, it must have seemed overwhelming to the aforementioned Musical Director. Yet everyone who saw this production will be rightly impressed by the consistently high standard of singing and instrumentation.
I leave until the end a tribute to Miss Worthington. She seems to be following Noel Coward’s advice not to go on the stage in person (is that an obscure reference?). Instead, she imagines and orchestrates it all like a Lowther Pavilion Prospero, conjuring up a convincing alternative world and using every inch of the stage to its best advantage. I have no doubt the cast have shown their gratitude for her energy, vision and all-round calm, which never ceases to amaze me. The audience’s loud applause confirmed that they had seen an “act with lots of flash in it, and their reaction was (duly) passionate.” My congratulations to her, Mr. Brown and Mr. Waterhouse for making the vaudevillian sparkle of Prohibition Illinois shine so brightly and memorably in the chill of a Lancastrian January.