Above – Lucy Maunder, Anthony Warlow and ensemble. Photo – Jeff Busby

It is no surprise that Chicago holds the record for the longest-running Musical Theatre production on Broadway, running continuously since 1996. Featuring Bob Fosse’s sexy and sharp 1970s choreography, Fred Ebb’s witty and playful lyrics, and John Kander’s lively Roaring ’20s score, it has become a well-loved part of the canon. 

Fosse and Ebb adapted Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 play, which revolves around the true stories of pretty young murderers using media sympathy to escape guilty verdicts from all-male juries in 1920s Chicago.

In this production, Choreographer Gary Chryst has recreated the style of Bob Fosse’s groundbreaking original work, and the ensemble does it magnificently. The choreography is witty, sexy, slick, decadent and wonderfully performed. Musical Director Anthony Barnhill has his outstanding band centre stage, just like a Jazz Age Big Band. I initially worried that it might dominate the stage too much and not leave enough room for dancing, but the ensemble used every bit of the stage, including the band area.

With sassy humour and dazzling routines, Chicago deals with the heady intersection of murder and celebrity, with a dose of corruption and adultery thrown into the mix. Two murderers, Velma Kelly and Roxy Hart, fight for the public’s attention to save themselves from the death penalty. Both are low-rent vaudeville hoofers and while Velma is older, tougher and knows the ropes, beneath Roxy’s more innocent façade, she is just as mendacious.

These two iconic roles have been played by Musical Theatre greats over the years in Australia, including legends Geraldine Turner/Nancye Hayes and Caroline O’Connor/Sharon Millerchip. But while the current production of Chicago is ambitious in requiring its leading women to handle the demands of Bob Fosse-style choreography, Zoe Ventoura lacks the acting and vocal panache that is required from a truly great Velma.

There was not enough vocal and characterisation difference between the female leads. Zoe Ventoura is a fine singer, but her voice lacked the timbre and sheer guts (think Turner and O’Connor) to assert her character’s dominance. Velma did not evoke the street-smart toughness and menace that we have come to expect. And while there were times when she displayed her comic chops, the moment it was really needed – to perform I Can’t Do It Alone – fell flat. That number is all about comic, physical business, and not having it was a lost opportunity. Just imagine what the genius physical comedian Lucille Ball could have done with that routine!

But enough of my quibbles!

Lucy Maunder’s Musical Theatre experience was evident and she captured Roxie’s high energy sassiness as she sparkled, dissembled and shimmied her way to freedom. Her bright, warm, beautifully developed voice was just right for the role. Maunder’s scenes with Anthony Warlow were the highlight, particularly the seamlessly performed, We Both Reached for the Gun.

However, it is two male principals in this production that truly shine, although neither are required to exert themselves in the dance department. Anthony Warlow and Peter Rowsthorn both give rich, character-driven performances that engage the audience in entirely different ways.

Warlow’s portrayal of the sleazy barrister Billy Flynn is nothing short of magnificent. His beautiful voice is by far the best in the company. To Flynn, the justice system is a “Three Ringed Circus”, where the criminals are the performers and the public is the gullible audience, salaciously lapping up the sensational press coverage.

It was a joy to watch such an assured performance that had the audience in the palm of Warlow’s hand. Fosse’s mantra to his cast was “make love to the audience”. He was probably trying to encourage his dancers to be sexy, but Warlow did exactly that by drawing the audience into his performance. It was so intimate. Everything this greedy legal puppet master did, like his outrageous invented narratives to milk public sympathy, was performed with a knowing wink and a grin, including the audience in on the con. Warlow was fully in command of every gesture and every note. Really, it is a delicious performance and just as Billy Flynn should be.

The same applies to TV comedian Peter Rowsthorn, who plays Roxie’s hapless husband, Amos. He provides the heart of Chicago, showing the human fallout of treachery. Rowsthorn gives a simple, humble portrayal. His one singing number, Mister Cellophane, nearly brought the house down. In it, Rowsthorn doesn’t go for tragedy. He plays it straight and in doing that, achieves the most powerful emotional moment in the show (and impressively, holds the longest note!!).

I encourage you to see this show, as it is one of the truly great musical theatre works, despite my concerns about some of the casting choices. It is the dilemma that applies to every musical – whether to cast on dance, voice, acting chops or name recognition. In this show, the choice is clear to me. Because this show is an homage to the choreographer, Bob Fosse, the ensemble must be able to dance, then sing. However, the principals need to equally sing and act, then dance. The great Geraldine Turner as Velma hardly even moved in the Sydney Theatre Company’s 1981/83 production (a production without the Fosse choreography) but her Velma is legendary.

Event details

John Frost for Crossroads Live presents
CHICAGO the Musical
book Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse | music John Kander | lyrics Fred Ebb

Venue: Capitol Theatre, Sydney NSW
Dates: 9 June – 28 July 2024
Tickets: from $69.90
Bookings: chicagomusical.com.au/

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