Even before the QPAC curtain raises on Chicago, its experience is evocative, with a black derby hanging on the back of a black downstage chair, as signpost to the show’s indelible choreographic style and Fosse-esque attention-to-detail. The story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery (as its opening lines impart) is set in the pre-depression, Prohibition-era 1920s in the corrupt city of its title. But it is soon apparent that its satirical look at the cult of celebrity and the media is incredibly timely and so it still feels fresh, given the current media and political climate. Indeed, despite its sensational aesthetic, there is an authenticity about both the show’s story and themes. Based on real-life cabaret singers Belva Gaertner (who inspired the role of Velma) and Beulah May Annan (who inspired the role of Roxie), the work draws on the burgeoning jazz age of vaudeville’s evolution into risqué cabaret clubs.
We begin when Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) shoots her lover Fred Casey (Andrew Cook). Her long suffering, devoted husband Amos (Rodney Dobson) initially offers to take the fall for her, believing her initial claim that Casey is a burglar. But soon the truth emerges and Roxie is sent to Cook County women’s jail, run by the crooked Matron ‘Mama’ Morton (Casey Donovan). There she meets a lot of women with similar scenarios (cue the iconic ‘Cell Block Tango’), including famous vaudeville actress Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey) who murdered her sister and husband. As Roxie changes into a calculating survivor, she soon deposes Velma to become infamous defence lawyer Billy Flynn’s (Tom Burlinson) new star client.
As always, the show’s iconic soundtrack is integral to its success. The Kander and Ebb classic has a score full of iconic, toe-tapping tunes – homage to the music of the 1920s – presented by a 15-piece orchestra under the baton of musical director Daniel Edmonds. There is a vaudevillian style to its realisation through the band’s positioning on stage and involvement in the action. Sounds levels are generally appropriate, although they do compete with the vocals of Burlinson’s ‘All I Care About is Love’. The big band instrumentation, with lots of brass, is delightful, especially in Act Two’s ‘Entr’acte’.
While tenacious but soft-hearted crime reporter Mary Sunshine’s (J. Furtado) optimistic Act One number ‘A Little Bit of Good’ drags a little (pun not intended) up until this juncture things power along. And when Dobson delivers Amos’s plaintive ‘Mister Cellophane’, its tone is not one of sadness but mourning of mediocrity. This is not the withdrawn and depressively dejected Amos that is so often seen. The audience loves his genuineness in contrast to wife Roxie’s insatiable desire for fame.
Although written almost 40 years ago, the music and choreography remain mighty appealing, with plaudits on the staging. Not only do members of the ensemble assume roles without change of costume, but they become part of the set. They sit along the side of the stage, sometimes as part of the fabric of a scene (such as when they interact with the conductor), but always in character. The smoky atmosphere is akin to that of a jazz club. The lighting is an integral part of the experience, especially in the Pop! Six! Squish! Uh-uh! Cicero! Lipschitz! Of ‘Cell Block Tango’ (cleverly without any sign of a cell), where each of the six women are, in turn, isolated as they explain their presence in the jail and how he had it comin’
There is an exceptional detail to the show’s choreographic realisation. It showcases dancer strength and agility while honouring Bob Fosse’s distinctive style of finger-snapping, scrunched shoulders, thrusting pelvises and small movements in emphasis of the words and rhythms of the songs. From the very first step of the ‘All That Jazz’ opening welcome, the dancers are simply absorbing to watch. Every detail is exceptionally well executed with impeccable less-is-more 5,6,7,8 precise isolations. Contrast and formation variety also add interest.
Costumes may play within a seductive black palette, but the aesthetic is far from dull, with a gold frame edging enhancing its razzle dazzle atmosphere. Still, this is a Chicago that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Roxie’s ‘Me and My Baby’ is wonderfully vaudevillian and Billy Flynn’s first appearance is in song from behind a gathering of feather-paddled chorus girls, Busby Berkeley style. And humour features heavily, especially in Roxie’s fourth wall breaks and the animated ventriloquism of ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ in recalling vaudeville’s requisite specialty acts of the era.
Chidzey is a dynamic as viper Velma, impeccable in her timing and delivery, however, the name of everybody’s lips has to be Bassingthwaighte. She gives the ditzy Roxie a personality beyond just selfish, making her at once foolishly naïve and overly worldly, and yet also sympathetic from her lack of malicious intent. In terms of support players, while Burlinson’s Billy Flynn is more cringy showman than charismatic legal player, Casey Donovon demands attention whenever she is on stage, especially in the sassy and solid ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.
Chicago stands as the second longest-running musical in Broadway history (after Phantom of the Opera) and this production shows why. Whether you only know of the show through its 2002 film adaption or Chicago is one of your all time musical theatre favourites, this is a slick showcase of all of its aspects.
Chicago is playing at Lyric Theatre, QPAC until 7th December, 2019.
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane