Saturday, March 11, 2017

Chicago - Canberra Philo

Review by John Lombard

Cold-blooded murderess Roxie Hart (Vanessa De Jager) is on trial for her life, and she decides to fire her slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Will Huang).  Not because he is doing a bad job - Billy knows how to make the system do what he wants - but because he is not doing enough to further her career.

In Chicago's toxic swirl of fame and notoriety, an appropriately heinous crime can be a springboard for a lucrative career in vaudeville, and the show's brilliant satire is to have convicted felons scrambling not so much to be acquitted, but to make the biggest splash in the press.  If a lawyer isn't making you famous, he's not doing his job.

Director Jim McMullen adheres closely to original director and choreographer Bob Fosse's vision, capitalising on an extremely talented chorus to capture a vaudeville spirit.

The production also benefits greatly from excellent performances by Vanessa De Jager and Will Huang as a siren and shyster double team.  De Jager's Roxie is manic, self-obsessed, ruthless and just a little bit dumb, creating a sense not only that she is capable of murder, but that she is capable of doing it again if she deems that her career needs another boost.  Huang is appropriately charming and confident as Billy, but really shines when Roxie punctures his bravado and forces him to accept that he is no better than her.  Performances of Billy Flynn so often dwell on the slickness that it was refreshing to see the character invested with an interesting self-awareness and complexity - perhaps even a little self-loathing.  The confrontation between Roxie and Flynn was authentic and arresting, and a demonstration of how good actors can inject new life into a well-worn musical.

Kelly Roberts as Velma Kelly meanwhile hit the right note for the character, tough and savvy but incapable of competing with her new rival Roxie's audacity and recklessness.  Weirdly, although the script establishes Velma as Roxie's rival, you never get to see Velma turn the tables and steal the spotlight back - Roxie is always in charge.  Roberts' voice is as always impressive, and her dancing is increasingly polished, although it is still not her strength.  The concluding double act between De Vager and Roberts felt a bit flat, not up to the impressive choreography standard of the rest of the show.

The part of Roxie's long-suffering husband Amos is a gift for the performer: they just have to show up and the audience will love them.  Joanthan Rush as Amos Hart I think took the wrong direction with the character, playing him as freaky and weird rather than merely meek and sincere.  By playing the character as repulsive it diminished the ruthlessness of Roxie's actions: cavorting with other men seemed perfectly reasonable, and it was difficult to imagine how they ended up married in the first place.

The murderesses who perform the Cell Block Tango were excellent, with Brittney Gould as Hunyak in particular giving a heart-breaking performance.  Ben Wilson also deserves special mention for his impressive falsetto in the part of Mary Sunshine.

The choreography in this production by the team of Hannah Carey and Emily Appleton was excellent, with an extraordinary level of specificity and detail that was maintained consistently in the many ensemble numbers.  The pair particularly teased out the vaudeville spirit in the variety of styles employed with good comedy, some stylish fan dancing and a show-stopping circus number.  Another highlight was the ventriloquism scene, which also displayed how well De Jager and Huang work together. Along with good costumes from Jill McMullen the show was consistently stylish and sexy rather than sleazy.

Chicago remains wonderfully cynical, with Bob Fosse's inspired vision setting tight guidelines both for what audiences expect and for what amateur companies set out to achieve.  While the similar Cabaret's book is a bit of a mess, Chicago is extremely polished and focused, and the Jazz Age aesthetic and sound is delightful.  McMullen's production is exactly what you would expect from a production of Chicago, and that is not bad thing but it gets a little extra oomph from great choreography and a talented cast.