It may have been winter in Sydney (27 August) but 'Chicago' offered one hot, hot, hot look at the 1920s.
This longest-running, American musical strikes a chord with audiences thanks to its whip-smart writing and a score that boasts 'All That Jazz'. This sultry production certainly has a timeless quality, because Maurine Dalla Watkins' 1926 play about the cult of celebrity, power, corruption, greed, and exploitation continues to resonate to this day.
This musical has seen various renderings over the years. There was the original 1975 Broadway production, as well as the Oscar-winning 2002 film. These days, however, this musical is often based on the 1996 Broadway revival with choreography done in the 'style of Bob Fosse' by his ex-lover, Ann Reinking. The sashaying snake hips, sensual arms and those mesmerising jazz hands lure you into one darkened underbelly.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte stars as Roxie Hart, a woman who shoots her lover in a rage of passion. She is transported to the Cook County Jail and meets inmates charged with similar crimes. The clink’s top dog is the strong-willed, attention-seeking murderess, Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey). The latter is bewitching as the vaudevillian actress who has killed both her husband and sister. Bassingthwaighte also provides a strong vocal prowess (although we’d expect nothing less from the Rogue Traders’ lead) for her peroxide-haired, sex kitten-like rendering of Roxie.
A big surprise for the evening was Casey Donovan’s performance as Matron 'Mama' Morton. She delivered a character with a warm but sassy, take-no-prisoners attitude. In doing so, she proved she can really act and convincingly play a woman aged well beyond her youthful years. Her voice was a veritable powerhouse, especially in 'When You’re Good To Mama'.
The show’s set by John Lee Beatty was kept rather minimal to suit the setting. The orchestra, led by Daniel Edmonds, was seated in a box of tiered seats enabling them to be the judges, executioners, members of the jury, and parties to these lively proceedings. It should come as no surprise that tunes like 'All That Jazz', 'Roxie', 'Razzle Dazzle', and 'Class' were all striking forces of nature. They grabbed the audience by the lapels and hooked them in. The numbers were bolstered by Gary Chryst's slick choreography (which was recreating Reinking’s original work) and the tight ensemble cast danced to perfection.
Roxie and Velma compete for media attention and popularity. Lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tom Burlinson) takes a calculated approach to media spin. There is some great, witty dialogue, mostly delivered by the strong, female leads. Their firebrand girl power is worth the price of admission alone.
Image © Peter Brew-Bevan
In 'All I Care About Is Love', Burlinson brings a softness to the proceedings by delivering some dulcet vocals. This musical packs in different tones and mines lots of depth for what is ultimately a satire about America’s justice system. On opening night a lot of the jokes really hit the spot.
The costumes for this 'Chicago' were less razzle-dazzle à la 'The Great Gatsby' and instead took a much sexier approach. The dancers wore lots of black lace and sheer mesh with sex sold along their side of killing. This meant that there were some darker, more cynical moments as well as a playful, sultry-style we’ve now come to associate with this musical.
'Chicago' was a razor-sharp look at the perils of fame when poised with a fickle media. It was a rollicking and entertaining look at the roaring '20s with a knowing wink, because this kind of jazz still feels fresh today. This is a show which continues to endure because it ultimately knows how to hold court with an audience.