There’s a great scene in the often great Fosse/Verdon, the recent TV bio-series, if we’re to believe it, showing a tense rehearsal of Chicago’s final number before its Broadway debut in 1975.
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have delivered a closing song for the character of Roxy, the cheeky Nowadays. It’s the perfect 11 o’clock number for its star, Gwen Verdon, who fought for years to gain the rights to the story (a 1926 play of the same name) as a star vehicle to relaunch her stage career. But director/choreographer (and ex-husband/muse/manipulator) Bob Fosse had another idea. Why not try it as a duet with Chita Rivera’s Velma, he suggests? Verdon bitterly watches her star vehicle drive off. She fights but Fosse, as he so often did, wins the day.
Since that moment, Chicago — the jazz-age tale of crime, punishment and reward — has always been a two-star show. Verdon and Rivera. Nancye Hayes and Geraldine Turner in the 1981 Australian debut. Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth in the 1996 Broadway revival. Caroline O’Connor and Sharon Millerchip in the most recent Australian revival. Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-showered 2002 film.
The power dynamics shift depending on the casting. Zeta-Jones won the Oscar. O’Connor made the role her own here and in London and New York. Liza Minnelli stole the show when she secretly replaced an ill Verdon in the original run.
A new Australian production, the Brechtian Broadway boilerplate on another national tour, delivers two new leads in Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Alinta Chidzey. And they’re pretty well matched, step for famous Fosse step, lighting up Nowadays and scoring an immediate standing ovation.
But this Chicago is balanced in Roxy’s favour. Bassingthwaighte is a knockout, vamping from wide-eyed kitten to starry-eyed killer in a credible leap. Chidzey has the voice, the moves and All That Jazz, but Velma’s ruthless desperation seems a tad blunted. I reckon an older Velma, raging against the dying light, adds greater dimension to the piece.
Some of the other principals didn’t extract everything you’d hope from the roles on opening night, either. Tom Burlinson, as slippery lawyer Billy Flinn, had the Vegas showman down in Razzle Dazzle but wasn’t oily enough in All I Care About Is Love or cruel enough in some scenes. Fabulous Casey Donovan unleashed on When You’re Good To Mama, but the character work needed to be a little smaller than her prodigious vocals. Rodney Dobson was a terrific patsy as Roxy’s long-suffering hubby Amos, though his Mr Cellophane wasn’t as pitifully poignant as some.
Or at least so I thought, if I’m going to be picky (which is, after all, this exercise). The performances will obviously shift over the run, which takes in Brisbane and Melbourne (where former TV hunk Jason Donovan inherits the Billy Flynn role). The problem with these canonical musicals is we go in not just humming the tunes but with clear ideas about how these characters should be played. My ideal Mary Sunshine (here, the fierce falsetto of J Furtado) won’t be everyone’s tumbler of gin.
What isn’t in dispute is just how sturdy director Walter Bobbie’s production is, a slick, sexy, stripped-backed cabaret show that showcases great singing, great dancing (Reinking spritzed Fosse’s inimitable steps in ‘96) and characters that speak to our malevolent, individualistic, celebrity obsessed culture in the 1920s, the 1970s, 2019 and surely infinitely into the future.
Chicago is the greatest satire on the music theatre stage. It’s among the very best musicals ever written. And like sex, booze and jazz, even when it’s bad (and this is far from that) it’s so very good.
Chicago plays the Capitol Theatre in Sydney until October 20. It moves to the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane November 2-30 and the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne from December 14 to February 9.