Three art forms unite for a sophisticated ‘Chicago’ 

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Tom Burlinson and company. Photo: Jeff Busby

“Chicago”, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, until October 20. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

THIS polished production of “Chicago”, based on the presentation by City Center Encores, will have a familiar look to it for audiences who have seen this musical many times over.

Set on a stage-within-a-stage at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, it sees the band occupying an upper part of the performance space, ever-present and often engaging with the action.

Inevitably this means that the main action of the show plays out on a reduced space downstage, with high structures at the side for actors to swing from.

The production has the sense of a vaudeville-style concert performance, in which each character steps forward to do his or her showbiz “turn”.

This is intentionally an alienation-effect theatre device, where the characters introduce themselves and ask the band for exit music before getting roars of approval from the audience.

The subject matter of “Chicago” is brutal and sordid, but the presentation is sophisticated and cynical — this combination is what has given the musical its enduring power since it first surfaced in 1975.

But it’s also an opportunity for showbiz magic, and this production is no exception, with big show-stopping numbers like “All I Care About is Love”, “Razzle Dazzle” and the brilliant expository “Cell Block Tango”, where the merry murderesses relate their stories with gunshot rapidity.

Movement is at the centre of “Chicago”, originally both directed and choreographed by the legendary dance artist Bob Fosse.

Much of his sharp, often hilarious choreography remains in this production (where space permits), drawing loud laughter from the audience as the performers give the odd kick or flick of the arm to underscore their words.

The ensemble’s dancing and singing is perfectly drilled and precise, with the clever use of its members to play assorted policeman, judges etc without resorting to a change of costume – the audience understands that they are “presenting” the characters, not entering the roles.

The 1920s-style dance band, directed by former Canberra and rising star on the musicals scene, Daniel Edmonds, dominated the evening with its fine musicianship.

There are four extrovert main characters in “Chicago” (and one shy one) and as the spotlight turns on each, both the strengths and weaknesses of the acting emerge.

The biggest disappointment of the night was Tom Burlinson, in a muted and under-sung portrayal of flamboyant criminal lawyer Billy Flynn. He never looked or sounded the part, which requires flourish and razzle-dazzle.

Natalie Bassingthwaighte looked the part of the vain, untalented killer Roxie Hart, gradually investing her role with the manipulative qualities she personified.

Alinta Chidzey made a petite, venomous Velma Kelly, at her best in the sardonic duet “Class”, where her perfect enunciation made all the verbal gags hit home. But her show-off piece, “I Can’t Do it Alone”, seemed less than virtuosic, with insufficient energy.

As the corrupt, larger-than-life prison matron, Mama (Casey Donovan) brought voice and presence to her introductory “Reciprocity”, and cynical resignation to the number with Velma.

In spite of all the razzle dazzle, the showstopper of the evening came not in the big song and dance numbers, but in “Mister Cellophane”, where Roxie’s hapless husband Amos, played straight by Rodney Dobson, tries to catch the audience attention, only to be ignored in the end.

Here the balance of slow, heavily-accented band music, lyrics, acting and dance revealed the totality of performance that can make theatre the most exciting of art forms.

 

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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