Book and Lyrics by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music by John Kander
Canberra Philharmonic Society, Erindale Theatre
Directed by Jim McMullen
Musically Directed by Chris Ronan
Choreographed by Emily Appleton and Hannah Carey
9-25 March 2017
Chicago is a lithe beast. Its great music, trim storyline and interesting characters have held enduring appeal for amateur and professional companies alike and, of course, audiences.
Because it is a well-written piece, Chicago is most successful when it lets the material speak more or less for itself – although less often is more – and many of the biggest hits of Canberra Philharmonic’s production are often scored with minimal intervention. This Chicago is a tight and quality show on many fronts – but when a show achieves such a standard, the elements preventing it from going next level can stick out like a misplaced rhinestone.
I think it’s safe to assume that those reading this will know the plot of Chicago. Needless to say those merry murderesses Roxie and Velma just won’t quit in their desire for fame/infamy in a city and time where celebrity is as fleeting as yesterday’s news.
I can see where director Jim McMullen was going with respect to introducing Vaudeville-esque elements into the show. That sensibility seems a natural fit for Chicago and many of these were on point – such as the Me and My Baby and We Both Reached for the Gun sequences. However other moments seemed to deviate from that endeavour, such as the blandly staged A Little Bit of Good and When You’re Good to Mama (although very well sung by Shell Tully). The propensity to bring the entire and numerous cast on for many numbers where they might only be singing backing vocals, or not singing at all, also goes somewhat against the grain of Chicago’s minimalist DNA.
Part of the problem is in the setting – not that it isn’t well achieved in its own right however. Philo has shown they have a preference for large, architectural-type sets and their Chicago is no different. Such a treatment would seem a sensible choice for the vast Erindale stage and I liked the availability of levels. However, locking the characters into specific locations can become problematic, for instance the raised semi-circle at the back where much of the action takes place was too far back, when the rest of the stage is empty. Moments too such as prisoners appearing in Billy’s office, when presumably they were meant to be ‘in prison’ or Roxie and Velma’s last dance in the courtroom also seemed to be situationally confused. That is not to say that there aren’t many great moments. When the scenes and performers break free from these constraints, everything goes up a gear.
In fact generally speaking, the cast, as has come to be expected from McMullen shows, is very good.
Kelly Roberts is outstanding as Velma and exudes a commanding presence as the jaded, infamous, murderer desperate to cling on to her notoriety whilst gradually exposing an underlying bitter vulnerability like an expanding tear in a fishnet stocking. Amongst many vocal highlights for Roberts, All that Jazz sizzles as the perfect opener.
Vanessa De Jager too gives an excellent performance as Roxie, skiddishly determined to achieve her delusion of fame at any cost. De Jager especially shines when she is not confined by setting or concept and allowed to work the stage – such as in Roxie.
Although Velma and Roxie might be adversarial, De Jager and Roberts, together, lift the show to new heights, exemplified in My Own Best Friend and the Finale.
They are well complimented by Will Huang as Billy Flynn who walks the walk and talks the talk as the cash-obsessed, unempathetic lawyer and delivers a typically solid and well-articulated performance.
Jonathan Rush’s Amos is perhaps the character in this production who deviates most from previous incarnations in that he has found a unique depth where others might succumb to buffoonery. This Amos is portrayed with a quiet frustration, sincerity and anguish in an unexpectedly moving performance.
Good support is provided by Shell Tully (as Mama Morton, vocally impressive with Velma in Class) and Andrew McMillan (as Fred Casely). Ben Wilson, in the difficult falsetto of Mary Sunshine, demonstrates commitment to the role but experiences some pitch issues, especially in the higher register.
The ensemble are highly energetic and provide reliable support when it was required. It is clear that the choreography (by Emily Appleton and Hannah Carey) is perfectly tailored to the range and ability of the performers, which has become a rarity these days. Accordingly, the dance and movement sequences are tight, well-executed, and more importantly deliver a sense of character when needed.
The band, led by MD Chris Ronan excels and does justice to the tricky score. The choice to seat the band on stage is a sensible one but should have included consideration to provide them with some costume as they are very much part of the action.
From a tech point of view, like the crispness of a Fosse click, Chicago benefits from a precise yet understated starkness. There are several very successful lighting moments – such as the start of the Cell-Block Tango sequence and the closing of Amos’ spot at the end of Mister Cellophane. Glancing up at the available technology in the rig however I can’t help but feel the lights were somewhat underutilised. Lighting has the potential to become a key character, perhaps moreso than most shows, by accentuating the style, syncopation and rhythm. Perhaps exercising more restraint with colour and follow-spots and instead making the most of subtle enhancement on soloists and designating spaces with light would have greatly assisted the concept here.
Sound design by Nick Cossart was well executed. A few minor microphone issues were well handled and Cossart’s developing work in the musical theatre scene in recent times has not gone unnoticed.
Costumes by Jill McMullen evoked the minimalist aesthetic well-known to Chicago-lovers and were effective. Whilst the addition of extra elements to the base costumes (such as the journalists) were well-thought through, they probably weren’t needed.
Philo has once again shown they have the resources and talent pool to deliver a quality show. Although I’m not sure it reached its full potential in terms of concept, audiences will definitely be entertained. This season has been popular for reason, get a ticket before it’s yesterday’s news.