Saucy female crims are not solely the creation of prime-time television, writes DITA DE BONI.

If the success of the prison-based schlock drama Bad Girls is anything to go by, popular culture's love affair with the female inmate remains as strong as ever.

That is, popular culture's take on the female prisoner, mind you. The Bad Girls bunch are brazenly sexy: dripping in jewellery, breasts heaving, tough nuts with marshmallow centres, and partial to a bit of sapphic love - a tried and true prime-time formula that male viewers have flocked to in spades.

The 1920s-based musical Chicago - which opens in Auckland on September 28 - is a musical forerunner to Bad Girls, with double the flesh quotient. The production's most recent incarnation is touted in cities across the world with billboards of half-dressed vamps, despite its more solid reputation as a satire on the media, the legal profession and society's fascination with celebrity.


Based on actual events that played out in Chicago courtrooms in the debauchery-soaked 1920s, Chicago's 2001 turbo-charged sexual edge replaces formerly racy costumes with lingerie and the play's originally seasoned characters with young men and women who can better cope with rigorous dance routines.

The production will draw on the original Chicago play, in which plot is as important as aesthetics, and which didn't shy away from deviancy, sex and the wages of sin.

The story is based on the lives of two notorious murderers who captured society's imagination with sensational tales of their crimes. One, Beulah Annan, shot her lover and watched him die, supposedly while playing the foxtrot repeatedly on his phonograph. The other, Belva Gaertner, was a socialite who said she couldn't remember what happened when she was found drunk, covered in blood, beside her dead boyfriend in a car.

Both women were eventually acquitted and the journalist covering the two women's trials - Maurine Dallas Watkins - was inspired to write a play based on the women's lives. It lit up the box office in 1926, and spawned two films (Chicago, 1928, and Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers, 1942) and the musical, brought to the stage in 1975 by Broadway legend Bob Fosse.

The story, in which Roxie (Beulah) and Velma (Belva) meet in Cook County Jail and, under Matron "Mama" Morton, vie to become the most famous female murderer in the Chicago media, seems timely in an era when any number of sordid murder trials propel the most unlike figures into the world of celebrity.

The two New Zealand stars of the local production are local celebrities themselves, sharing the same instinct for survival and reinvention as their alter-egos. They've also been feted and ignored by the media throughout long careers.

They may not, however, be well-known as wicked women. Songstress Tina Cross - remembered for warbling jingles and ballads - plays Roxie, the floozy with the heart of gold who seeks fame through the prison hierarchy. And contemporary Suzanne Lee - who played a police cop on Shortland Street for almost four years and has since voiced children's animation series - plays the racy, tough-as-nails Velma.

The women have known each other since the early 1980s, when they were the local music scene's favourite daughters on shows such as 12 Bar Rhythm'n Shoes and Nothing but Dreams and have both found a modicum of fame across the ditch in stints.

But they haven't worked together before, and clearly enjoy the chance to prove they can transcend their light entertainment, big band, blue eyeshadow backgrounds.

"No doubt about it - it's a great opportunity," says Cross, who looks sprightly and beautiful at 42. "And let's face it - in this country, international shows don't come very often. To me, it's not even the profile or the accolades but the learning experience - going outside your comfort zone and taking on a role that really pushes you unlike any before."

Lee, 41, who seems the more delicate of the two, agrees that she would have been mad to turn down the chance to play one of the lead roles.

"It's great because so often companies bring in international casts to do shows such as this - this way, we don't have to leave our country to do a show," she says.

Having worked a gruelling schedule in an Australian production of Sunset Boulevard as the understudy for main character Norma Desmond, Lee says she prefers to stay near her daughter, now 11.

Cross says she enjoys playing a "baddie" and clearly revels in the vampy aspect of her character.

"Roxie is manipulative, fairly hard, very clever and she's also quite vulnerable and impulsive. She's also constantly reciting Hail Marys - which may not please some people out there - but at the same time she's got this steely resolve. She wants to be a star.

"I feel good about it, because I have to say I enjoy playing a baddie. The last two characters I've played, Columbia in the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the evil stepmother [in an Australian production of Sisterella] have been tough nuts - it's not hard for me.

"Also, Roxie is a sexy, vampy character. If I took myself back 10 years I might not be quite so comfortable in that role but now I'm very comfortable in that area."

Indeed, Chicago sees Cross simulating sex on a large double bed within 10 minutes of the opening curtain.

Lee, meanwhile, has found the overtly sexual nature of the show a little harder to deal with. She says her Velma garb - which sees her don "next to nothing" for most of the performance - is not her preferred mode of dress.

"It's fishnet stockings and a teddy thing - personally I tend to hide myself a bit more. But I'll be able to do that as long as I'm creating the persona of Velma. But definitely, the sexual side is something I have to come to terms with as a role."

Lee first saw Chicago many years ago at the now defunct Mercury Theatre, starring Lee Grant as Velma and Annie Little as Roxie. But she says she had no preconceptions about her character, and is still plumbing the depths of Velma in the last weeks of rehearsal.

Cross, meanwhile, "still gets nervous" before performances, despite being a veteran of stage and television screen.

"I'm quite a frenetic kind of person anyway, and I find taking on something like this fits right in with my character. If anything, I have to hold myself back - I have a tendency to burn myself out quickly."

Following in the footsteps of luminaries such as Liza Minnelli, Bebe Neuwirth and Gwen Verdon, who have all immortalised the roles of Chicago's main broads on Broadway, Cross and Lee have much to live up to.

And who knows - they might always be top choice for a local production of Bad Girls, bound to be on its way soon. Mischievous Mt Eden Mommas, anyone?

* Chicago premiers in Auckland on September 28 at the Civic; in Christchurch on October 27 at the Town Hall; and in Wellington on November 13 at the WestpacTrust St James Theatre.