Chicago – the right musical at the right time in the right place. (Theatre review)
Capital Theatre till October 20.
Tendrils of a strange fear are extending into the hearts and minds of those of us in countries that purport to be America’s allies. While Donald Trump has been slowly eroding our faith in America for the past several years, a terrible sense that perhaps his representation of American ‘values ‘might be more accurate than his predecessor is overtaking us in the same way a bad meal makes it’s presence known after it’s consumed. In their cleverness, the good folk at John Frost Productions have brought this current manifestation of Chicago to the Sydney stage revealing a talent for precision timing. The much-loved musical is given a philosophical revamp during a Trump presidency (and a not so subtle hint toward the end of the show) to present as an examination of American morality. This judgement sits so well with the original story and the musical itself that this production achieves the hardest of all tasks for a revival – freshness inside an authentic evocation of the original that regularly tips into loyal reverence.
Unlike the 1926 Maurine Dallas Watkins play that forms the basis of Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s book, Chicago escapes its damning critique of feminine wiles and properly updates to a powerhouse criticism of America’s bombastic culture and its easy corruptibility. With Bob Fosse homage choreography, the Cabaret influence is present and it is inside the production’s choreography (from Ann Reinking based on Bob Fosse’s original work and brought to life through the work of Gary Chryst) that the American critique blossoms. Chicago came out only a couple of years after the success of Cabaret and most evocations, including the now famous 2002 film, have focused on the “razzle dazzle” aspect of the roaring twenties; all feathers, sequins and prohibition. Now in a post Trump world, bola hats, super short tux dresses and a suspender belted cast dragging café style chairs behind them, the lucidity of Cabaret’s political observations rise to the surface and we see the musical Chicago anew. Today the death of an innocent immigrant, the immorality of a legal system happy to manipulate the press with fake news, and the disappointment of an acquittal that never makes the headlines are so commonplace, we can only hope for their eradication in the demise of Donald Trump. But as the musical Chicago informs us, these evocations of American morality have been there all along, we have simply chosen not to see them.
It is this timing combined with an adherence to the original talent of Bob Fosse that makes this production of Chicago the best one could possibly see. Much loved songs such as “Roxie” “We both reached for the Gun” and “Me and My Baby” take on a darker edge with an arrangement that moves toward the cynical wit we know from Cabaret. The choreography is presented with impeccable timing by the ensemble and the cast leads fulfil on an essential predictability that combines with some margin for unique perspective. Casey Donovan as Mama Morton exemplifies this elusive trait with a star power that properly never overthrows the spirit of her role. Tom Burlinson seems to find his calling as Billy Flynn, Alinta Chidzey is a superb Velma Kelly and the ever-transforming Natalie Bassingthwaighte is a roguish Roxie. J. Furtado does a good job as Mary Sunshine and Rodney Dobson is properly loveable as Amos who gives us an iconic ‘jazz hands’ moment as a fitting tribute to Bob Fosse.
However, if a true star of this outstanding production must be singled out, it belongs to musical director Daniel Edmonds and his orchestra who bring a fullness of authentic sound that rounds out the proper Chicago experience. With the orchestra on a tiered riser (again, Cabaret style and following the big band jazz style) and the action taking place below and in front, the musical fills out into the large theatre with precision thanks to sound design by Julian Spink. It is the orchestra and their arrangements that elevates this production of Chicago providing the scope for a superb ensemble to produce visual magic.
There is a lot of theatre on the Sydney stages at the moment, and many great shows from which to choose. This manifestation of Chicago however, stands apart as a world class production that will give you the sense of quality style and wit usually reserved for London or New York audiences. It’s a clever musical done in a clever way at precisely the right time. If your taste moves in this direction, then you will not want to miss this production of Chicago.