Murder most musical

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to see two shows, both of them involving people killing others, and the audience following the killers’ stories.  Whether the victims “had it coming” or simply “looked like plant food”, we weren’t meant to feel much sympathy with them, though the levels of audience sympathy with the killers was very different in each show. 

First, I zoomed up to the capital to see Little Shop of Horrors with three friends.  This show is a particular favourite of mine, so it was wonderful to see a professional production, even if it did heighten my previously-mentioned desire to play the role of Seymour.  The show is on at the rather lovely Ambassadors Theatre and was an absolute joy.  The cast were all very good, which is always a relief in a show with a small cast, as anyone under par stands out like a sore thumb.  The bloodthirsty plant had a new design, which was refreshing.  And, of course, the script and score were as excellent and laughter-provoking as always.

For those who don’t know, the show centres around a failing flower shop, where our nerdy hero (Seymour) and put-upon heroine (Audrey) work under the money-grubbing Mr Mushnik.  The lives of all three, plus Audrey’s nasty Dentist boyfriend are changed forever when Seymour discovers a ‘strange and interesting’ plant which requires an unusual diet.  The show is based on a black and white horror film and spoofs that sort of film in a fast-moving series of scenes and 1960s-flavoured songs.  At times quite disturbing (well, the first act finale is rather icky), it is mostly very funny indeed, which is not what you’d expect from a story about a plant that wants to munch upon fresh blood.

This current staging of the show gets the audience in the mood before proceedings officially get underway by playing audio clips of the old horror movies, full of thunder, screams and cackling.  Some of the cast also wander around the set (which shows Skid Row, a very dilapidated inner-city street), merrily improvising as bums and bag ladies.  The show proper then starts rather abruptly, making everyone jump, and never slows down for breath from there until the final curtain.  It was not without its difficulties, though, as we witnessed the dental surgery set misbehaving…  The drill came completely adrift from the wall, which merited a round of applause before Paul Keating (Seymour) and Alistair McGowan (The Dentist) carried on bravely, slightly improvising to cover the intriguing new situation, but managing not to laugh, which must surely have been the immediate impulse.  Or maybe it’s happened before, and they’ve grown accustomed to it?  The show is definitely worth seeing.

Then last week, I stayed at home (well, I went to the theatre within walking distance of my house, but you know what I mean) to see the touring production of Chicago.  This is a show that I had somehow never seen, even though I love the score, am a great admirer of all of the works of Kander and Ebb, and even enjoyed the film very much.  I was certainly not disappointed with the show live on stage, the way it is meant to be seen.  It’s hugely energetic, brilliantly choreographed and, again, very funny.  It’s an entirely different sort of humour in Chicago, more barbed and satirical.  The show itself is a satire on the American legal system, the press and the cult of celebrity, meaning that it manages to be more relevant now than it was in 1975.  The song ‘Razzle Dazzle’ is about the way in which a showman can get away with absolutely anything as long as the public gets the show they are expecting.  I can certainly think of a number of US and UK politicians and officials who seem to live by that rule, distracting us with flash, style over substance, and getting away with monumentally awful decisions.  How can we see with sequins in our eyes?

Chicago is staged very simply, with the orchestra (who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely) on stage behind the action, and most of the ensemble sitting on chairs at the edge during many scenes.  The lights are all visible, the most complicated props are chairs and feather fans and the costumes are black, white and grey.  Most of the songs are presented as vaudeville-style numbers with no efforts made in the direction of naturalism whatsoever.  It is this which makes the jokes funnier and the satire sharper, I think.  Setting it in a more traditional way would rob it of its theatrical power, and the simplicity makes the coup de theatre of the climactic trial scene all the more effective.  Again, definitely worth seeing.

I could expend paragraph upon paragraph talking about either of these shows (and perhaps one day I will), but I will simply say that I have rarely enjoyed seeing characters killed in cold blood more than I did during those two shows.  Seymour in Little Shop had my sympathy, Roxie in Chicago did not (as I sympathise with her husband Amos, another role I’d like to add to the Singing Librarian’s list of credits), but I would definitely recommend watching both of their stories.  Though both make very enjoyable films, nothing beats the experience of seeing them live at the theatre.  Go on, you know you want to…

  1. Oh, you got to see BOTH of these wonderful shows live? I am seething with jealousy. I’ll bet the orchestra was having a wonderful time at Chicago. Great music, well orchestrated. I can’t think of a single number in Chicago that I didn’t like, but I have to say my particular favorite is the Cellblock Tango, followed closely by the Tap Dance in the courtroom scene.

    Little Shop of Horrors is also quite wonderful. I have a very large peace lily that makes me think of the plant, it lives in my livingroom behind the sofa during the winter and exudes an aura of hunger, somehow. I call it Marvin.

  2. One mark of good literature and drama is that it conveys a message that’s timeless and relevant. The Razzle Dazzle number causes audiences to reflect on the current political environment, as does the last few Harry Potter books. As a teacher, I think it’s important that kids not only attend live theatre, and read a novels, but that they find contemporary relevance for what it has to say to us here and now, or help them see events in the world in a slightly different way.

  3. Chicago is staged very simply, with the orchestra (who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely) on stage behind the action…
    Most of the orchestra members are local; each tour travels with the bare minimum of a conductor, usually some keyboardists, and maybe some specialized musicians (I’m thinking specifically of the African winds instruments in Lion King). When it came to our town, my co-worker was the tubist and it was one of the best shows he’s done – not only did they get to SEE the show from behind, they get to really be part of it. It’s also fun for audience members who know the musicians, especially if Kitty’s about to slide right by his ear.

  4. Friends who play in the pit do indeed often complain about not being able to see the show, so I can imagine that a view from behind is a lot better than what they normally get. I love the bit in the Entr’acte when the brass section goes to town on the ‘Mister Cellophane’ tune, so I hope your tubist friend got to do more than oom-pah oom-pah at that bit.

    I wouldn’t want to sit on the sofa in front of Marvin. Yikes!

    And Treavor, I agree. Exposing children to the arts is doubly good because of the ways that theatre, literature and so on can make you really *think*, something many people fail to do these days.

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