Friday, 20 December 2019

Chicago - Musical Review

What: Chicago
When: 14 December 2019 - 21 February 2020
Where: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Music and Lyrics by: Fred Ebb and John Kander
Book by: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Directed by: Walter Bobbie
Choreography by: Ann Reinking
Performed by: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Alinta Chidzey, Andrew Cook, Todd Dewsberry, Rodney Dobson, Samantha Dodemaide, Casey Donovan, Jason Donovan, J Furtado, Ben Gillespie, Chaska Halliday, Travis Khan, Hayley Martin, Tom New, Jessica Vellucci, Romina Villafranca, Rachael Ward, and Mitchell Woodcock
Set by: John Lee Beatty
Costumes by: William Ivey Long
Lighting by: Ken Billington
Casey Donovan and Alinta Chidzey - photo by Jeff Busby
Having been on stage since 1996, there is not really anything I can tell you about Chicago which you don't already know. It is saucy, it is sassy, it is dark, and it is on at the Arts Centre, Melbourne until the end of February. It is rare to see a show which has the audience laughing and cheering from start to finish, so get along to see this one which has Melbourne audiences finally expressing some real (and loud) appreciation!

I don't know what was going on in Kander's and Ebb's heads when they wrote Chicago, but they were definitely not feeling good about the world and really let rip with all of their cynicism in the songs. I suspect it was Fosse who was responsible for toning down the book and giving the whole thing a little more respectability than a Tupac style playlist. If you think I am exaggerating check out the lyrics of 'Class'.

Don't get me wrong - I love the writing in this show. It is satire and it is rough - the hold no prisoners kind of satire which bites to the bone at the same time as you are laughing so hard your whole body is bouncing. My favourite lyric is "Why is everyone now such a pain in the ass?" (from 'Class). As true now as it was when written...

The story is a remake of a 1926 play by Maureen Dallas Watkins. She was a reporter during the roaring 20s for the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, during the Jazz era a lot of women were going around and killing husbands, lovers, and boyfriends and being let off by the criminal justice system.

In the meantime, in a precursor to our internet explosion, the papers were making these women fake celebrities. Chicago draws an analogy between the temporary stardom of these women and the fickle world of the live theatre scene, with just enough of a gloss of feminism to keep someone like me warmed to the cockles of my heart.

Chicago is quite young as musicals go. It was first produced in 1975 and this 1996 revival doesn't stray too far from the original although it is more of a concert style production with the only set piece being the band area which is a fallen picture frame. There are a series of levels and steps which allow us to enjoy the musicians, and are used as entrances and exits for cast. The proscenium is also a matching gold picture frame. The black on black aesthetic of costumes and set hark back to black and white photos of the 1920's - as if we are remembering a distant past whilst at the same time it flails us for our very modern failings of treachery, manipulation, corruption, and the fickle fight for celebrity status.

Combining the ideas of jazz dance with the older aesthetics of Jazz music, the choreography is familiar, yet fun and playful with just the loveliest touches of Fosse flavour. As well, Kander has written music which covers the spectrum of vaudeville styles including burlesque, tap, tango and others.

This means the cast of Chicago have to be not just good dancers - they need to be brilliant and this cast meet that need and excel far beyond it. I admit to totally falling in love (or lust) with the cameo character of Fred, Roxie's (Bassingthwaighte) murdered lover. He can do those push ups for me any time! The feminist in me also needs to say it was refreshing to see a male character - even if it is only an ensemble member - being objectified the way the entire female cast is.

But now it is time to talk about the singing [drum roll please]... Oh yes, it is the magnificent Casey Donovan as Mama Morton who is the first to really bring the house down with applause with 'When You're Good To Mama' (although we were well and truly revved up with 'Cell Block Tango' only moments before). I have heard the words "show stopper" used before but have never seen it until now.

The big surprise for me was Alinta Chidzey (Velma). I didn't think it was possible, but Chidzey can match Casey Donovan note for note and growl for growl and if you had any doubt, just sit back and enjoy 'Class'. (You might be realising right about now that I LOVED that duet...)

Bassingthwaighte is really in her element as Roxie and she and Chidzey have a great chemistry as they negotiate a compicated nemesis/ally relationship. Watching them struggle to create space in the world for themselves made me proud of their inner strength and intelligence. I was probably supposed to think they were amoral women, but they are super heroes to me. Especially as they come to accept that old adage "be careful who you step on on the way up, because you will meet them again on the way down".

Jason Donovan is playing Billy in Melbourne. I have always had a fan crush on this man - I even liked his album in the 80s. I think the music for Billy goes further down the scale than is his comfortable singing range but he is on pitch all the way- his voice is just weak in the lower registers. It is a pity because his performance is magnificent but he is almost inaudible in 'Razzle Dazzle' and this means he isn't able to portray the oiliness of the real Billy Flynn. I am still in love with him, regardless of this.

This same point could be made with Bassingthwaighte's rendition of 'Me And My Baby', but with all that oozing, ditzy blond character work she does who really cares? I don't know if I have seen finer theatre than the puppet scene.

I also found myself wondering if the song 'Mr Cellophane' (sung by Dobson) resonates anymore. Do people still use cellophane or is this an image which will fall into the anachronism category soon? The white gloves is also a little too evocative of the Black and White Minstrels - which is authentic vaudeville, but a fraught topic these days. Having said that, it is a tricky problem to solve and this may go over the heads of the new generations...

Chicago has a Brechtian construct, but I have to say I didn't like seeing the dancers on chairs on the side of stage. It seemed to be the one messy thing in the whole show. It is a very big misconception of the late 20th century that to do Brecht you have to do this. Being Brechtian does not mean you have to show the lighting grid and all the actors all the time, etc. It just means you have to remove the 'trickery' of theatre. By showing the trick you make the point much stronger than just going with the traditional concept of 'the magic of theatre'.

Enough criticism though. Chicago is brilliant. It is full of fantastic and clever humour, sharp shards of insight, and moments of great pathos such as the hanging of the Russian woman who's only English words were, "Not guilty." In a world full of liars and scoundrels how can you possibly identify the innocent?

A piece of popular theatre which is sexy, smart, funny and insightful? Does such a creature exist? Yes it does! It is Chicago. Check it out for yourself!

4.5 Stars


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