Monday, March 20, 2017


Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb.
Directed by Jim McMullen. Musical Direction by Chris Ronan. 
Choreographed by Emily Appleton and Hannah Carey.
Presented by The Canberra Philharmonic Society.
Erindale Theatre until 25th March 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Will Huang as Billy Flynn with the ensemble for "Chicago"

When it premiered on Broadway in 1975, “Chicago, A Musical Vaudeville” was a stinging satire on the collusion between the media and the legal system to make celebrities out of criminals. Based on a 1926 play, the musical was brilliantly staged by Bob Fosse who drew on popular vaudeville styles to frame his production.

Although not particularly well received in its initial season, the musical was revived in 1996, following Bob Fosse’s death, in a concert version, restaged by Ann Reinking “ in the style of Bob Fosse”, and with  a new title,  “Chicago – The Musical”. For her version, Reinking softened the satirical emphasis, preferring to concentrate on the dance element to pay homage to Fosse’s innovative choreography. Reinking’s version achieved instant success, and is constantly restaged around the world.

For his production for The Canberra Philharmonic Society, Director, Jim McMullen has retained the best elements of both approaches in an assured, lavish and consistently entertaining reworking of the deliciously salacious saga of two murderesses, Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly and their unscrupulous lawyer, Billy Flynn.

Told in a series of extraordinarily well executed production numbers, the storyline revolves around two desperate murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, and their crooked lawyer, Billy Flynn, portrayed with considerable panache by Will Huang, who devises a series of highly publicised media events  to achieve the acquittal of his clients.
Vanessa de Jager as Roxie Hart and Kelly Roberts as Velma Kelly in "Chicago" .

Vanessa de Jager is outstanding as the not-so-dumb-blonde, Roxy Hart. Her assured singing, dancing and comedic timing make it hard to take your eyes off her whenever she’s on stage. She receives stiff competition from Kelly Roberts, who compliments De Jager’s exuberance with a cleverly contrasted portrayal as the constantly thwarted Velma Kelly. Their accomplished execution of the tricky “Hot Honey Rag”, which ends the show, is a highlight.

In a strong ensemble cast, Jonathan Rush impressed with his unique take on Roxie’s down-trodden husband, Amos Hart, finding a different resonance in his show-stopping solo, “Mister Cellophane”.   Ben Wilson managed to bring unexpected dignity to his Mary Sunshine, as did Brittany Gould who tugs at the heart strings as the tragic murderess, Hunyak. Andrew McMillan makes the most of his moments as the unfortunate Fred Casely, but although she brings a powerful voice to her role as Matron (Mama) Morton, Shell Tully hasn’t yet developed the presence needed to convince in this role.

Vanessa de Jager and Will Huang together with the ensemble perform
"We Both Reached for the Gun" in "Chicago" 

Particularly impressive in this production is the staging of the musical numbers. Utilising a stylish, versatile art deco setting, which transformed effortlessly between Ziegfeld staircase and prison cells, the show opened with a slick and sophisticated “All That Jazz”, quickly followed by a visually stunning “Cell Block Tango”. A superbly performed ventriloquist routine preceded a Ziegfeld Follies- inspired extravaganza featuring no less than twenty leggy showgirls complete with ostrich-feather fans and Busby Berkley choreography. “Razzle Dazzle” was staged as a three-ring circus complete with aerialists on trapezes.

Each number lavishly costumed by Jill McMullen, and performed to the accompaniment of a gutsy on-stage band which successfully captures the mood of John Kander’s raunchy prohibition-era score. The stylish, well-drilled ensemble of dancers, both male and female, perform the inventive choreography confidently, and choreographers Emily Appleton and Hannah Carey have cleverly  combined elements of both the Bob Fosse and Ann Reinking original with their own, to bring a professional gloss to the show.

Unfortunately, this gloss was smudged a little on opening night by errors in the ambitious lighting plot. No doubt these will have been eliminated by the time you read this.

Jim McMullen’s disciplined, confident direction ensured the show’s message was clear and on-song throughout, which together with impressive performances from the principals and ensemble, with excellent production values throughout, mark this entertaining production as a significant achievement by The Canberra Philharmonic Society, and an impressive demonstration of the high standard of musical theatre currently being achieved by non-professional theatre companies in the region. Don’t miss it.