Left – Natalie Bassingthwaighte. Cover – Alinta Chidzey and Company. Photos – Jeff Busby.
Give ‘em the old Razzle-Dazzle… is perhaps the most salient line to describe this excellent local transplant of one of the most extraordinarily successful productions in the history of Broadway and the West End. They say one should never be so gauche as to inquire of a lady her age, but to describe as long in the tooth this facsimile remounting of a production that has been going since 1996 (which in turns apes the 1975 original) would be an understatement. Indeed, this is even a return tour for this production and, to the best of my recollection, identical to one I saw a couple of decades ago.
One could at this juncture launch into some legitimate yet potentially tiresome thinkpiece about the artistic value of prolonging productions to such an extent. We can well muse over whether there may be something perverse about trapping in aspic the choreography, costume design and myriad other creative and directorial choices which make theatre a living yet ephemeral medium. We could debate whether there should be some statute of limitations on rehashing franchised productions without significant variation or localised reinterpretation. Perhaps even arguing that theatrical material must, by its very nature, be constantly reinterpreted by subsequent generations in order to remain fresh, vital and relevant.
Or… we could just talk about what an absolute corker of a production this (still) is.
Light on narrative but bursting at the seams with scintillating style, this quintessentially sexy show eschews historical accuracy to its Roaring Twenties setting in favour of a minimalist staging… if something so excessively lubricious could ever use the term “minimalist” with a straight face. With a stage dominated by a steeply tiered rostrum housing the onstage orchestra – dominated by its very sassy brass section – there is scarcely the room, much less the inclination, to feature realistic sets of any kind beyond the occasional token chairs or ladders which disappear into the wings. The Brechtian storytelling here is all in the sound and movement, the talent of the performers, and the way that talent is… shown off.
Upon this stark theatrical canvas shimmies a parade of impossibly lithe and sinewy guys and dolls, who cavort about in wildly anachronistic lingerie and mild fetish gear, to virtually everyone’s immense pleasure, one scarcely doubts. Visually it’s a treat, albeit an almost monochrome one, in perhaps a token nod to the early days of B&W “talkies” that would have been flourishing in all their pre-Hays Code naughtiness at the time of Chicago’s setting. Perhaps not though, as cinema seems far from the creative preoccupations of this vaudeville and jazz-club obsessed musical, so maybe Bob Fosse just really liked dressing his dancers in black lingerie. Knowing the man’s reputation (recently dramatised in the biopic miniseries Fosse/Verdon), it certainly seems feasible.
But lest one give the impression this show is all about lads and lasses showing off their rippling physiques in vinyl bras, impossibly tight pinstriped trousers, and miles upon miles of mesh fabric, this is a cast of consummate triple-threats, who can all act, dance and sing to beat the band. And that’s a loud damn band, too. One hesitates to describe this versatile supporting cast as “the chorus”, as they all seem at some point or another to take on specific roles, however fleeting. Yet it is baked into the text of this play that conflates murder, vaudeville, newspaper reporting, and courtroom drama as all just different facets of “SHOWBIZ!” that not everyone jockeying for the limelight can be a star.
Inevitably then, we come to the headliners in this production, who are all great performers. Veteran Tom Burlinson is polished (if unexciting) as the media-manipulating defense lawyer Billy Flynn, a stark contrast to the intentionally unassuming Rodney Dobson as the ultimate nebbish Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart, who nevertheless gets one of the biggest pops from the crowd when he dons the white gloves for his lone solo number. Casey Donovan acquits herself well in the role of warden Mama Morton, not only when belting it out with her expectedly impressive pipes, but her comedic acting chops prove to be none too shabby either.
Alinta Chidzey has, depending on your point of view, either the exciting challenge or the unenviable task of kicking off this sexiest of sexy musicals with arguably the hottest number in the show. Her feline rendition of “All that jazz”, ably assisted by the energetic backing of most of the supporting cast, is quite simply a knockout of mesmeric choreography and seductive vocals.
The role of Velma Kelly is often, as it is here, presented as a co-lead, yet in reality it is a distinctly straighter, less plot-driving role that requires a consummate performer to avoid appearing as merely a more conventional femme fatale foil for the plum part of Roxie Hart. In Chidzey’s capable hands, however, Velma shines, a vibrant and vivacious character who feels every bit Roxie’s equal, or at least as far as the plot and allotted stage time allows her to be.
All of which leads us to what was, for me, perhaps the biggest question mark going into the evening, the eye-opening performance of Natalie Bassingthwaighte. Previously knowing her only as a pop singer and by reputation as a former soap actress, in my lack of exposure to her prior stage work I was not quite prepared for how perfectly her quirky, sassy energy would translate to the role of Roxie Hart. One hesitates to dish out too often the compliment that such-and-such is “a revelation” in a role, but that would not be too far off for describing how wonderfully this casting works.
Bassingthwaighte does a terrific job of capturing the fun and allure of this ditzy dame, embracing the often rather clueless, thick, and profoundly self-involved character, yet injecting sufficient vulnerability and endearing optimism to prevent Roxie from becoming a repellent egotist. Indeed, the entire cast does a great job of giving a vital dose of likable humanity to characters who are, pretty much to the last one, fairly terrible human beings. Yet none more so than Bassingthwaighte, whose singing and especially acting bring this vaudeville-wannabee murderess to life, in a performance that stands as the apex of an altogether fabulous show.
Not for anyone wanting substance over style, or even a new approach to this latter-day-classic, but if you like your musical theatre fun, frisky, loud and unapologetically slinky, you really can do no better than to get your glad rags on and see this evergreen banger of a show.
John Frost/Suzanne Jones in association with Barry & Fran Weissler presents
lyrics Fred Ebb | music John Kander | book Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse | based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Director Resident Director Karen Johnson Mortimer | original New York director Walter Bobbie
Venue: Capitol Theatre | 13 Campbell St, Haymarket NSW
Dates: From 20 August 2019
Tickets: From $59.90