“The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be Roxie.” So sings Roxie Hart and her “boys” in the musical Chicago, and so it proves to be in this latest Australian production of Kander and Ebb’s musical. With Natalie Bassingthwaighte giving the performance of the night as the fame-seeking chorine who gets away with murder, it really is Roxie’s show. The performance of the top-notch ensemble is also to die for.
As for the show itself, though it was written over 40 years ago, it is so tuned into the zeitgeist that it feels like it was written yesterday. Set in 1920s Chicago, playground of Al Capone, the musical is a dark, corrosively funny satire about corruption in the American justice system, society’s obsession with celebrity, and the fickleness of the easily manipulated media. Kander and Ebb not only had their finger on the pulse when they wrote Chicago, they could have been gazing into a crystal ball at today’s world. Rather than feeling dated, the musical feels fresh, slick and incredibly timely.
When Chicago premiered on Broadway in 1975, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, it received mixed reviews. Many found it too dark and cynical, though it still ran for two years. However, it was the sleek, minimal, sexy 1996 Broadway revival, directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography by Ann Reinking (in the style of Bob Fosse) that clinched the show’s reputation. It is now the longest-running American musical on Broadway, and has been staged around the world ever since.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Tom Burlinson and company. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Bobbie’s Broadway revival was first seen in Australia in 1998, with Chelsea Gibb as Roxie and Caroline O’Connor as her arch rival, jail mate Velma Kelly – an ageing vaudevillian who can’t remember shooting her sister and husband after discovering them doing “the spread eagle”. The production was revived in 2009 with O’Connor reprising the role of Velma and Sharon Millerchip as Roxie Hart – the pair proving a fierce, unforgettable combo.
Another decade on, and the production remains as fabulous as ever. The band sits on stage as if in a jury box, framed like a portrait. The cast wear stunning, itsy-bitsy black costumes (designed by William Ivey Long) which look drop-dead gorgeous on the taut, honed bodies of the superb ensemble. With each act written by Kander and Ebb in the style of a vaudeville act, the pared-back staging intensifies the focus on Fred Ebb’s razor-sharp lyrics, John Kander’s sizzling, jazzy score, the dazzling, sinuous choreography, and, of course, the performers.
Alinta Chidzey and ensemble. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Bassingthwaighte is divine as the ditzy yet cunning Roxie who can’t help putting her foot in her mouth, and so is used like a puppet by her celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, yet will do whatever it takes to make it into the papers. When Flynn saves her from being hanged at her court case, all she can think about is that none of the media wants to take her photograph as they dash off to cover yet another salacious murder. Delivering a performance that is deliciously funny and cute, yet conniving, Bassingthwaighte is also touching in Roxie’s few moments of introspection when she looks back on a life full of ‘no’s’. She may not be the most stunning dancer but it simply doesn’t matter, she has the star power to command your attention.
As Velma Kelly, Alinta Chidzey sings and dances well. She looks gorgeous and performs with a sweetness that is winning in its own way, but which isn’t tough enough for the hardened Velma. The character needs a thicker hide, so that we feel the ruthless, competitive, take-no-prisoners tussle between her and Roxie more keenly. Some of the laughs went missing on opening night too, though this will doubtless change as the show settles in and finds its rhythm.
Alinta Chidzey and Natalie Bassingthwaighte. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Casey Donovan brings plenty of sass to the role of the prison warden Mama Morton, and sings powerfully with rich, glowing tones. As with Velma, the character could be tougher with more of a cut-throat edge, but it’s a warm, buoyant performance, and the audience loved her.
As lawyer Billy Flynn, Tom Burlinson gives a solid performance though some added showbiz pizzazz wouldn’t go astray. J. Furtado is convincing as the sympathetic journalist Mary Sunshine, who Billy wraps around his little finger, while Rodney Dobson is moving as Roxie’s adoring, misused husband, his touching song Mr Cellophane pulling at the heartstrings.
Casey Donovan. Photograph © Jeff Busby
As for the ensemble, they are out-and-out sensational. The dancing is exceptional, every detail of the seductive, finger-snapping choreography performed with tight, impeccable, exhilarating precision, from sultry thrust hips and flicked shoulder rolls to seamless splits and jazz hands.
Andrew Cook makes a hyper-charged, athletic, almost bionic Fred Casely, while Chaska Halliday, Samantha Dodemaide, Hayley Martin, Jessica Vellucci and Romina Villafranca tear it up with Chidzey in the Cell Block Tango. The band under musical director Daniel Edmonds also delivers the goods in style, nailing Kander’s score.
There’s room for the show to become a bit darker and dirtier, and for some of the cast to plumb their characters in more depth, but it’s still a hugely entertaining evening and as relevant as all get-out.
Chicago plays at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney until October 20, then the Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane from November 2, and Arts Centre Melbourne from December 14