Fosse Finesse at its Finest at Opening of CHICAGO
Capitol Theatre, Sydney, August 27
Reviewed by Heather Clements & Chris Duncan
There is always a danger of casting big name leads in a much-loved musical, but in the case of the latest production of CHICAGO which opened last week in Sydney, the casting perfectly brings this sassy story to life.
Opening night was full to the brim with Sydney celebrity guests from Angela Bishop and Lisa Wilkinson to Kerri-Ann Kennerley and Ricki-Lee Coulter, and so it was great to see an iconic show like CHICAGO produced with so much style and precisely delivered on all levels, easily out shining the A-listers.
This stripped-back, elegant new Frost/Jones production relies completely on the power of the story, song, and characters to bring all the nuances of this classic musical to ‘razzle dazzle’ at The Capitol. Great casting worked here too, with an accomplished small ensemble of triple threat performers who seamlessly delivered knockout performances with professionalism and pizzazz.
The band is placed centre stage – literally – and forms the heart and soul of CHICAGO, becoming the set itself giving the feel of a 1920s speak-easy jazz club. Initially, I thought having the entire band on stage was a distraction and hindrance on the performers, with them having quite a small space to dance and perform. However, after the first few numbers this concern evaporated and the talent both of the musicians and the cast soared.
In fact, this production uses only a handful of props (chairs, ladders, feathers) throughout to convey the various storylines and scenes of the story of the women awaiting trial at Cook County Jail for murdering their lovers and trying to manipulate their cases in the murky seas of corruption and infamy, in an effort to avoid a guilty verdict and get their 15 minutes of fame.
Happy to report that Natalie Bassingthwaite’s return to the musical stage as Roxie Hart was brilliant! Everything about her portrayal of Roxie was on the mark, and her cheeky comedic performance was a delight. She will only solidify this performance as the seasons roll out.
Also totally nailing their performances (and a relief they were fab!) were the other big ticket names on the cast: Casey Donovan was born to play her loveable rendition of corrupt prison warden Big Mama, Tom Burlinson sat naturally in the role of corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn and sassy Alinta Chidzey gave a star performance as Velma Kelly.
All the big song favourites were delivered 100% including All That Jazz, Funny Honey, Razzle Dazzle, Mr Cellophane (performed charmingly by Rodney Dobson as Roxie’s vapid husband Amos complete with white-gloved jazz hands), All I Care About Is Love, We Both Reached for The Gun, and Cell Block Tango. Maybe we just really like the conventional versions and staging of hit song Cell Block Tango, but this was the only number where we thought the small stage hindered the performances. Roxy, Velma and the other ‘merry murderesees’ had only chairs in this iconic number and it was a little dull. In truth, we missed the cell bars!
However, the overriding success of this production is the refreshing return of the Bob Fosse-styled choreography that was delivered authentically by all. It was a treat to see the Fosse-style of dance and movement so upfront and celebrated. The small ensemble are truly talented triple-threats and their sassy style and simple costuming of black lingerie and mesh on flesh really brought the true essence of the original CHICAGO to life. The choreography is by Ann Reinking, very much in the style of legendary Bob Fosse, with whom she once worked. Loved the hip rolls, classic jazz style, simple, tight moves, and jazz hands and all dancers are clearly beautifully trained and can knock it out of the park in the execution of dance at this level.
The clean, simple theme of black and white for the staging and costuming worked to enhance the original magic of the story and songs, of which only a tight knit and talented cast can pull off with out the temptation to employ the glitz and glamour of the 1920s era.
Standouts numbers on the night were Natalie doing ‘Roxie’- wow!! – where any doubt she could pull off this role vanished. And the powerful duet by Velma and Mama (Alinta and Casey) of ‘Class’ – a song that is sharply applicable to today’s societal norms and closes the first Act. Some of the performances and nuances could have been a bit raunchier in parts, especially as the crux of the show is sex and gender politics. But in truth, every number was a joy.
In many ways, the subtext of CHICAGO is very relevant to today: the idea of seeking celebrity through infamy and at any cost can quickly be applied to today’s era of social media’s ‘InstaFamous’ generation, not to mention the power available to to the wealthy and corrupt and the ability to ‘spin’ a story to get the desired outcome regardless of the law and ethics. The more things change … as they say …. the more they stay the same, and CHICAGO’s tale is still entirely applicable to contemporary times.
CHICAGO may be a ‘quaint’ musical these days and it does show its age a little, but it is defiantly worth the night out to see this show, playing only for limited seasons in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. If not for the education in the genre and Fosse moves and great casting performances, then at least for the brilliance of the original score by Kander and Ebb which truly takes centre stage.
Even before the final bows the audience were on their feet cheering with thunderous applause. Overall, this was a better than expected show which is hard to pull off these days when doing one of the all time classics of the musical theatre genre, and to bring it back to its simplicity is the genius of this production – which in truth, can only be accomplished with the talent on stage, and this is a well-cast show. Bravo!
CHICAGO THE MUSICAL
SYDNEY – Capitol Theatre
Until late October 2019
BRISBANE – Lyric Theatre, QPAC
From 2 November 2019
MELBOURNE – Arts Centre
From 14 December 2019