Review: Chicago, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Tuesday 27 August.
By Peter Hackney, Arts & Entertainment Editor

In the world of musical theatre, as everywhere, there’s something to be said for old favourites, and for doing them well. And that’s what’s been achieved in the new Australian production of Chicago, which has its press opening at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney last night.  

But while the Kander & Ebb musical is now one of the venerable grand dames of the oeuvre (the original Broadway production debuted in 1975) its themes remain relevant as ever.

Set in the Roaring ’20s, Chicago tells the tale of frustrated housewife and wannabe vaudevillian Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) who kills her on-the-side lover after he walks out on her. 

The story traces her jailing and conviction, her rivalry with cellmate Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey) and engagement of the city’s greasiest but most successful lawyer, Billy Flynn (Tom Burlinson).

This prescient musical is, at heart, about the triumph of hype over facts. It holds a mirror to the way truth, justice and the American way have been perverted by publicity and the court of public opinion. The perfect musical for the age of Trump and social media.

Yet these heavy themes are canvassed so entertainingly through the razzle dazzle of song and dance that you barely notice the points being made – and they sink in deeper for it. 

Wisely, the latest Australian production doesn’t mess with any of this and sticks faithfully to the script, so there’s little to critique about the approach that hasn’t previously been said. The most obvious difference this time around is, therefore, the cast.

 

Firstly, Bassingthwaighte is a revelation. If you know Bassingthwaighte as Izzy from Neighbours, or the face and (somewhat limited) voice of rock/dance band Rogue Traders, or even some of her previous forays into musical theatre, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at her star turn in Chicago. She’s perfectly cast in the role – she plays the murderess hussy to the hilt, pulling out all stops. 

This is a performer who’s done a truckload of hard yakka over the years and really honed her craft. She can act, she can dance and yes, can she sing. Bassingthwaighte really has pipes – something this reviewer, at least, hadn’t quite realised until now. 

Chidzey as Velma Kelly is also well cast; the perfect counterpoint to Bassingthwaighte’s Roxie. In Chicago, Chidzey proves herself to be a natural ‘triple threat’. Not yet the showbiz veteran that Bassingthwaighte has become, there’s little doubt Chidzey is also in for a lasting career straddling multiple forms of entertainment. 

Casey Donovan as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton in Chicago. Photo: Jeff Busby.

 

Then there’s Casey Donovan. Her talent is, quite simply, huge. Such presence and what a voice! Donovan left the audience wanting more and was a clear crowd favourite. Her portrayal of Matron ‘Mama’ Morton would hold its own in any production of Chicago anywhere in the world: Sydney, Broadway, the West End, Toronto or anywhere else you can name. A big call but she’s that good.

As for the supporting cast: Burlinson acquitted himself finely in the role of Billy Flynn, consummate professional that he is; Rodney Dobson was perfect as Roxy’s long-suffering husband Amos Hart, expertly drawing sympathy with his ‘cellophane man’ act; J. Furtado was a hit as Pollyanna-ish reporter Mary Sunshine, in a gender-bending performance that delighted.

They’re all backed by a tight ensemble cast, expertly choreographed to the second. 

The band was, of course, integral to proceedings and deserved their prime position on stage (this production sees the band seamlessly included on stage as part of the backdrop).

The production’s sound was brilliant – every instrument, vocal note and puff of breath perfectly audible – as was the lighting.

This is finely honed, expertly crafted theatre from start to finish.

One small issue, at least last night, was that at the end of Act Two, when Roxie and Velma finally performed together, they were ever so slightly out of sync at times. But when they hit their groove, it was mesmerising. One imagines that with a few more performances under their belt, this will be ironed out. 

All in all, Chicago is first class, professional musical theatre and a work of which producers John Frost, Suzanne Jones, and Barry and Fran Weissler can be rightly proud.

Chicago is now playing at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, to be followed by seasons in Brisbane and Melbourne. Tickets (from $59.50) are available at chicagothemusical.com.au. 

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