REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

When Chicago made its Broadway debut in 1975, it was a long way from achieving the status it enjoys the world over today. With a book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Ebb, its first introduction to New York audiences earned mixed reviews and the production was upstaged both at the box office and the Tony Awards by A Chorus Line.

But a revival in 1996, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Fosse, saw the story of celebrity murderesses’ manipulation of the criminal justice system soar to new heights, critically and commercially. It won six Tony Awards and is today the second-longest-running musical on Broadway (surpassed only by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most revered opera lurker). Chicago has now been seen by over 31 million people in 36 countries and, for the first time in 10 years, the 1996 Broadway production has returned to the stage in Sydney and reminds us why this vaudevillian-styled satire remains a prized piece from the canon.

Alinta Chidzey and the cast of Chicago (Photo by Jeff Busby)

Set in Chicago in the 1920s, the violent Capone Era, we find nightclub act, Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey), has been arrested and jailed pending trial for the murder of her sister and husband. There’s then Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte), a young woman who also has designs on a stage career but similarly finds herself locked up in the notorious Cook County Jail, accused of shooting to death her lover, Fred Casely (Andrew Cook).

Both Velma and Roxie are so obviously guilty of the crimes as charged, but each has a path to freedom thanks to the dazzling theatrics of luminary lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tom Burlinson), whose proficiency in crafting outlandish tales and whose knack for tugging at the heart strings of sympathetic jurors and reporters can rescue his high-paying clients from an otherwise predictable outcome. All Flynn must do to secure their acquittal is provide his audience a spectacular display and ensure they’re all left singing the same tune and, far from down and out, Velma and Roxie will leave the courthouse with their stars shining more brightly than ever before.

Tom Burlinson and the cast of Chicago (Photo by Jeff Busby)

It may be 23 years since this iteration of Chicago welcomed its first audience, but this production sizzles with palpably fresh energy and the finest company of dancers you’ll find in any musical. Reinking’s Fosse-inspired dance moves (recreated for this production by Gary Chryst) are executed with elegance, precision and clarity by a tremendously talented troupe. There is no room for desultory dancing on such a spare stage – John Lee Batty’s set is largely a simple structure suggesting a jury box and occupied by the orchestra – and so the onus is entirely on the performers to create the spectacle. It’s the ability of this cast to do just that and truly showcase Fosse’s, Kander’s and Ebb’s excellent source material, that makes this Chicago such a wonderful theatrical journey.

That’s not to say there’s no room for this company to further enhance the experience on offer. On opening night, room for colour to continue being added to characterisations was evident and for greater vocal power to be demonstrated in some numbers. But it seems fair to assume that these issues will disappear as the season progresses.

Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Tom Burlinson and the cast of Chicago (Photo by Jeff Busby)

Chidzey is chic and self-assured, gliding effortlessly across the stage as a homicidal nightclub star. Her Velma is magnetic and disarming but keeps us acutely aware that the only cause she’s interested in is her own. Bassingthwaighte is well cast as Roxie, the aspiring performer. Initially oblivious and far less in control of her narrative than Velma, Bassingthwaighte’s Roxie convincingly transforms into a woman capable of dictating the direction of the story.

Burlinson is a perfect fit for high-flyer Flynn’s expensive suits, delivering as the puppet master and swindler of sorts with a talent for turning murderesses into darlings of the press. Meanwhile, Rodney Dobson makes Mr Cellophane a second act highlight. His take on Roxie’s naive husband, Amos, is another success story of this production.

But no one on this stage is better on opening night than Casey Donovan, whose performance as matron of the jail’s women’s ward, “Mama” Morton, is everything you want it to be. We expect – and get – a strong belt and great tone from Donovan, and while we are treated to terrific vocals, there’s also an acting performance that sees her wholly embodying the role and lending Morton the authoritative presence she requires.

Casey Donovan in Chicago (Photo by Jeff Busby)

A strong roster of musicians is also pivotal to the success of Chicago and this orchestra, led by Daniel Edmonds, certainly gets the job done. Sound design is occasionally problematic (some vocals are hard to hear because of the volume of the musical accompaniment), but this is also something that should be addressed as the season goes on.

Chicago continues to be thrilling, stinging and memorable musical theatre with salient commentary on the disturbing impact of the cult of celebrity and the often-juxtaposed concepts of justice and fairness with spectacle and entertainment. It’s the production of this classic musical you’ve been waiting to see.

CHICAGO – SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS

Venue: Capitol Theatre
Season: From 20 August 2019
Performance Times: Midweek Matinees, Weekend matinees and Tuesday – Sunday Evenings
Price: From $59.90*
Bookings: www.chicagothemusical.com.au
* An additional transaction fee may apply

CHICAGO – BRISBANE SEASON DETAILS

Venue: Lyric Theatre QPAC
Season:From 2 November 2019
Performance Times: Midweek Matinees, Weekend matinees and Tuesday – Sunday Evenings 
Price: From $59.90*
Bookings: www.chicagothemusical.com.au
* An additional transaction fee may apply

CHICAGO – MELBOURNE SEASON DETAILS

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Season: From 14 December 2019
Performance Times: Midweek Matinees, Weekend matinees and Tuesday – Sunday Evenings
Price: From $59.90*
Bookings: www.chicagothemusical.com.au
* An additional transaction fee may apply

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