Melbourne’s State Theatre was abuzz for the Opening Night of Chicago.
Playing to a full house for a large chunk of their season, it was no surprise that every foyer was absolutely packed. People of all ages and backgrounds filed into the theatre to experience a musical vaudeville, and that is just what we got.
Based on a 1926 play, Chicago exploits the idea of the ‘celebrity criminal’ from the early 20s, and lampoons the American criminal justice system of the time. With its source material drawing on real people, Kander and Ebb also aimed to inject a popular theatrical style of the time into the show, vaudeville, by making reference to famed performers in several characters, scenes, and musical numbers. Their score holds some of the most recognisable tunes in Musical Theatre canon, including “The Cell Block Tango,” “Mr Cellophane,” and “All That Jazz.” Choreographer and co-book writer Bob Fosse was also integral to the show’s development, and his signature style is synonymous with the 1975 musical.
This production is a true example of how minimalism can work effectively. Paying a strong homage to the show’s Brechtian roots, the only real props in use are some chairs, a few parasols, and some showgirl fans. For a large majority of the show, the cast (when not performing) line the sides of the stage, gazing in on the action. A simple raked set showcases the Orchestra in all their brassy glory, with strategic doors and entrances scattered amongst them. The actors all speak for themselves, with no need for any extra razzle-dazzle or theatre magic. They are the theatre magic. Lovers of dance will be pleased to know the show features a plethora of Fosse’s iconic choreography, executed perfectly by the entire ensemble. Shuffles, jazz hands, finger snaps, rakes, and even a stack feature throughout.
Rodney Dobson as Amos Hart was an absolute scene stealer, with his rendition of “Mr Cellophane” breaking hearts across the theatre. Jason Donovan’s Billy Flynn was a boatload of charm and charisma – “We Both Reached For The Gun” was a great comedic moment.
Casey Donovan’s Mama Morton was a breath of fresh air. Her feature song “When You’re Good To Mama” has had many interpretations, ranging from a fully traditional Klezmer-esque sound, to a full belty burlesque number. Casey’s approach was more businesslike and matter-of-fact, with the motivations of Mama clear from the get go – money.
Alinda Chidzey as Velma Kelly is a fabulous combination of dry wit and sensuality. Her prowess is evident with every number, and her “All That Jazz” sets a precedent for the rest of the show. The often overlooked duet “Class” (with Casey’s Mama Morton) was a particularly outstanding moment, with harmonies crisp and acting sensational.
Natalie Bassingthwaighte’s Roxie may have appeared to be a Betty Boop bottle-blonde ditz, but there were clear moments of power, especially in her titular song and its opening monologue. Her vocals shone in the show, and I felt there was a likeness to Ann Reinking’s in the Broadway revival, but with an injection of Nat’s bubbly and, at times unpredictable, excitement. She bounced well off Alinta’s Velma, making the two a dynamite duo.
The word that comes to mind when reflecting on the cast is presence. Each held their own, and with such a small cast, there truly was no room to hide. Every ensemble performer was showcased in various moments, whether it was as one of Roxie’s boys, Billy’s girls, or the Murderesses. Additionally, it seemed like no performer was attempting to mimic past iterations. There were nice nods towards other versions of the show, but everything seemed carefully curated for this production. The orchestra were a tour-de-force, on stage for the entire show, and utilised wonderfully.
Chicago is arguably one of the greatest satirical musicals of all time, and the fact it’s held up in the spotlight for the past 44 years speaks volumes about the quality. A truly dazzling night out, this production of Chicago is one for both theatre aficionados and newbies alike. So slick your hair and wear your buckle shoes, because it’s only in Melbourne for a limited time!
Chicago is currently playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre.
For tickets and more information, please visit the Chicago Australia website.