The opening night of a musical is generally thought of as a destination after a long journey – a natural conclusion and a (hopefully) happy ending to an artistic pursuit.
On opening night, the show is ‘frozen’. All tech and performance choices are locked in after the rehearsal and early preview periods and the show will run as-is until it closes; in Australia, critics are invited to opening to review this final product; the night often ends in a party.
But opening night is really a beginning of another, secondary journey.
After all, after opening, there’s a whole run to do, a whole life still to live before closing night. As the show runs, performances become more lived-in and comfortable; the band and ensemble settle into their roles and build muscle memory; a show can get stronger, more confident in itself.
For Chicago, opening in Sydney last night at the Capitol Theatre, it held these two contradictions in its hands: it’s a destination and a beginning. It’s full of potential. This Chicago is slick and sparkling and moves smoothly from beginning to end, but there are hints of richer, more developed performances still growing and due to develop.
When you think of Chicago, there’s a good chance you think of this production: a bandstand that looks like a jury stand centre stage; a minimalist aesthetic; the drama accentuated with just a ladder and a few chairs.
Directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed with now iconic moves by Ann Reinking in the style of the show’s original director/choreographer Bob Fosse, this story of 1920s corruption, celebrity, and women who kill the terrible men in their lives opened on Broadway in 1996. It scored six Tony Awards – at the time, the most a revival had ever won – and has been running ever since.
It’s now the longest-running revival on Broadway and the second-longest running musical, period (after Phantom of the Opera, before Cats). Chicago is more landmark than artistic must-see in New York now, flattened out and dotted with stints of gimmicky star casting.
So how do you take a time capsule and give it a vital spark?
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Turns out, you do it by recreating the production halfway across the world, with some of Australia’s best dancers as your smouldering, seamless ensemble. And you allow for just a little playfulness in the company’s approach to character.
The little thrills in this production of Chicago are the unexpected ones born from that sense of play (Karen Johnson Mortimer is the resident director). There’s Natalie Bassingthwaite’s gamely offbeat, charming exploration of wannabe-star and murderer Roxie Hart.
Casey Donovan’s grinning Matron ‘Mama’ Morton brings new gleeful life to When You’re Good to Mama, a number that can feel static (the revival dictates a performance that largely stays in one spot). Her droll duet on Class with Alinta Chidzey’s Velma Kelly is a production highlight, and a bright spot for Chidzey, whose Velma is still finding her feet.
The steamy ensemble perform with a knowing twist. You might not be able to take your eyes off Hayley Martin, whose Cell Block Tango monologue as June (Squish) is an instant standout. Or from Rachel Ward as Go-to-Hell Kitty, whose own murderous traits threaten to one-up both Roxie and the original Chicago media murderess darling, Velma, in the papers.
The ensemble has stormed onto the Capitol stage fully formed. Their kicks are high and their shoulder rolls effortless, which means there’s already a steady, stunning production element that on its own covers the price of admission. Elsewhere, you can see the growth laid out like a path before the production, and it contains plenty of promise.
The more this company lives in Chicago together – Velma with her Roxie, Amos Hart (Rodney Dobson) with his Billy Flynn (Tom Burlinson), the girls of the heart-racing cell block tango – the more they’ll find new colours and complexities to their performances.
And there’s the band, under musical director/conductor Daniel Edmonds. It’s front and centre in this production by design, so when this group start out tentatively, you notice (it’s not helped by patchy sound design that occasionally lacks clarity). Still, by the entr’acte, when the brass section lets loose, it had already started to pick up steam, and you can feel in the music a growing heat that should only keep boiling and building over the run.
So, why not more Chicago? The 1920s are long gone, but the new 20s are on the horizon. After all – fame is still a commodity to be chased and notoriety can be an essential lucrative lifestyle option, especially for women who don’t fit the roles expected of them or are looking to assert their financial and personal independence from men. Press still love a scandalous narrative arc; the prison system remains corrupt; America (and Australia, for that matter) still sometimes confuses publicised villainy for examples of personal success.
Once baked, this Chicago will be a refreshing, refreshed take on a classic that, for the most part, holds up.
This content created with the support of City of Sydney