Sunday July 21, 2024
CHICAGO - THE MUSICAL
Review

CHICAGO - THE MUSICAL

By Diana Simmonds
June 14 2024

CHICAGO THE MUSICAL, Capitol Theatre, 13 June-28 July 2024. Photography - Jeff Busby: above - Zoë Ventura and Lucy Maunder; below - Anthony Warlow with fans; below again - Asabi Goodman and Zoë Ventura

In 1926, when Chicago Tribune court reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote her play Chicago, she was responding to what she saw as the corruption of the legal system in favour of female murderers. In particular Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan whom she renamed Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. She had watched the two being romanticised and sensationalised by the media and public. They became celebrities and society darlings. Ironically, they were eventually knocked off the front pages by an even more horrifying murder trial: Leopold and Loeb!

Fast forward to the 1960s and Bob Fosse failed to acquire the rights to Watkins’ play because of her stern Christianity. She didn’t want Velma and Roxie to become heroines. Happily for us, Watkins died in 1969. In 1975, with John Kander’s music, Fred Ebb’s lyrics, and Fosse’s choreography and direction, Chicago opened on Broadway.

Fast forward again, to 2024 and, post-pandemic lockdowns, producer John Frost figured that, contrary to the current theory that people don’t go out anymore, audiences actually might be hankering for a great night. And how better to deliver that than to dust off his 2019 production, freshly cast, and send it on a national tour.

The story is simple, as is the setting: an onstage-up-the-bleachers (glorious) show band looks down upon an empty stage where the ensemble and soloists sing and dance their hearts out to tell of how Roxie and Velma did murder their men but for good reasons. And what a company it is.

CHICAGO - THE MUSICAL

Anthony Warlow can do pretty much anything and, as uber-lawyer Billy Flynn, he does suave and sociopathic to the max – and is in great voice and motivation. Give him $5K and he’ll get you off anything.

As many patrons on opening night obviously knew, the show opens with Velma and the dancers and what must be a ripping version of “All That Jazz”. In that role of current queen of the jail, TV star Zoë Ventura was all dark, smouldering angles and sass. Together with an ensemble that after months on the road, was as smoothly powerful as a Rolls Royce, she delivered a dazzling start to a joyously murderous evening.

Velma’s reign was short, however, as another inmate arrived and, as prison boss Matron “Mama” Morton casually lets her know: it’s inevitable as night follows day. Asabi Goodman was an exhilarating presence and when she told us all that “when you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you” there’s enough menace behind the smile to remind that even with glorious music, gaol is no picnic.

The usurper on Velma’s turf is Roxie and in the form of musical theatre queen Lucy Maunder, the tough as peroxide blonde bimbo was soon revealed as being about as ditzy as a deftly handled shiv. Her husband, luckless boob Amos Hart – clever casting of Kath and Kim survivor Peter Rowsthorn – didn’t stand a chance against the shysters set against him. Yet when he donned minstrel-white gloves and plaintively sang of being invisible in “Mr Cellophane”, it’s likely that many found, hours later, it was the ear-worm they were left with.

CHICAGO - THE MUSICAL

The really astonishing part about this re-staging of the classic that, according to Playbill, “has been seen by more than 34 million people and played over 33,500 performances worldwide in 38 countries and in more than 525 cities” was the response of women to “Cell Block Tango”, the set piece for Velma and The Girls that has a resonance and meaning in Australia 2024 as never before.

Right now the Zeitgeist is boiling over with female rage and despair as we read of or – god help us – see women of all ages being bashed, brutalised, raped, or murdered virtually every week of the year. So, to watch six women, “the merry murderesses of Cook County Jail”, stomp and stare down polite society to the refrain “He had it comin’…” was beyond thrilling if the reaction of at least half the audience was an accurate gauge.

With such exquisite explanations as “I fired two warning shots. Into his head,” of the hubby who popped his gum instead of going to work; or of Wilbur, who angrily interrupted the carving of roast chicken thus: “He ran into my knife – ten times.” It was the song that galvanized us women to roaring, laughing agreement. Even Ms Watkins would surely understand: “It was a murder – but not a crime.”

A thrilling, funny, wicked night out for women of all ages and the men that (truly) love them. Recommended without reservation.

 

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