Left - Craig McLachlan and cast. Cover - Caroline O'Connor and Sharon Millerchip. Photos - Jeff Busby
Chicago, like the Emperor, is the musical without clothes (and in the case of the lacy, leggy chorus, almost quite literally); a naked stage full of ruthlessly naked ambition.
The scene, the windy city's seedy underworld of the prohibition 1920s, is dim and suitably smoky. The backing cast, buff and black-clad, skulks in the shadows. The band, a swinging 14-piece, takes centre stage, the only backdrop to the drama unfolding. Chairs, a cane, a top hat, a newspaper the only props to play with.
To this audience, post-Hollywood cinematic retelling and a mantle full of Oscars, the 34-year-old story is ubiquitously familiar: pitiless vaudeville stars and coldblooded murder, greedy lawyers and corrupt justice and, of course, all that jazz. Humming the songs in our head, we all know where this is going.
So on this blank backdrop, in an almost clichéd story, Chicago only really works if the performances are knockout. There is nowhere to hide in this show. Every high kick has to hit every beat, every note must pierce the murky darkness, the desperate dreams of fame and fortune have to be conveyed to the very back row.
And then some. In reviving Chicago for a new Australian tour (opening at Brisbane's renovated Lyric Theatre last week) producer John Frost delivers a surprising, sexy and spectacular cast of world-class talent to razzle-dazzle a whole new generation of theatre-goers. It is a dream ensemble in the most devilishly delicious musical ever written.
Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmied away with the Oscar, but Caroline O'Connor may well be the world's preeminent Velma Kelly. After playing the role on Broadway in New York and London's West End, Australia's own theatrical treasure is again the sinful soul of this production. Her Velma is utterly captivating from the first scene to the last. O'Connor recreates a creature of palpable middle-aged desperation, shamelessly laid bare as she begs for the spotlight in I Can't Do It Alone. Only an actress of such experience and stagecraft could deliver this. And her frenetic energy, now officially into her late 40s it must be said, is like a rhythm stick for the rest of the cast. She doesn't just keep up with the jaw-dropping choreography, she sets a fierce pace.
Not that O'Connor is allowed to steal the show. As a double act, Sharon Millerchip is the perfect foil and a fully-realised Roxie Hart. She is as cute as a kitten and conniving as a snake, this Roxie, transforming from giggly, naïve wannabe to merciless spotlight stealer and back in a matter of expressions. For character and actress it is a star-making performance.
And who would have thought former Neighbours pin-up Craig McLachlan could ever be this smooth? Seriously suave (and suitably slimy), he'd give 007 a run for his money as the slight-of-hand lawyer Billy Flynn cashing in on his clients' murderous rise to infamy. He drips with sly sarcasm in All I Care About Is Love, in his element as the meat in a showgirl sandwich.
Gina Riley makes a low-key entrance and begins a little awkwardly as a feet-planted, buttoned-up Matron ‘Mama' Morton. But any doubts she couldn't shake Kim to play the sassy on-the-take prison warden were extinguished when she opened her mouth - a powerfully poised voice emerges so everyone is ‘looking at moi'. The range is genuinely surprising, and the bittersweet harmonic duet Class with O'Connor (a new tune for many as it was cut from the film version) is a real highlight.
Special mention, too, goes to Damien Bermingham as the clueless, put-upon husband Amos, who stands by Roxie long after he shouldn't. As the character with the purest heart he is at once comically stupid and adoringly sweet, particularly in the aching solo show-stopper Mr Cellophane. And D.C. Harlock as not-so-inquiring journalist Mary Sunshine hides more than just a glass-shattering soprano voice under her wholesome cloak.
The chorus is fabulous; tight and terrific on every step. The entire cast, really, wrings every drop of emotion, humour and social satire from a rich musical experience. If anything this scathing tale of fame obsession and manipulation is riper than ever before, with an all-hits theatrical score that probably hasn't been bettered since. And this dazzling cast simply knocks it out of the park.
The bright lights of Chicago shine more brilliant than ever. Don't miss it.
CHICAGO - The Musical
Venue: Lyric Theatre QPAC | Cnr Grey & Melbourne Streets, South Bank
Dates: 19 March to 3 May
Times: Tue – Sat 7.30pm; Wed and Sat matinees 1.30pm & Sun 3pm
Tickets: $69.90 - $109.90
Bookings: 136 246 or qtix.com.au