Time Out says
The razzle dazzle musical is returning to paint the town – and all that jazz
Melbourne audiences get a rare chance to compare two jailhouse musicals from composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, written 17 years apart but playing only metres from each other. The first to open here was Kiss of the Spider Woman, originally written in 1992 and currently blundering its tonally-confused way through a season over at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre; their 1975 hit Chicago, in spiky, spiffy contrast, surges onto the State Theatre stage in this vivid and rollicking revival. The contrast couldn’t be starker.
Actually, it’s not really a fair comparison. Spider Woman is a noble misfire from the pair, and Chicago is one of their masterpieces. The MTC production is an original, designed and directed by local talent, whereas this is a remount of a tried and tested winner. Nothing originated from here, not the set (John Lee Beatty), nor the lighting (Ken Billington), nor the choreography (the legendary Ann Reinking). Which means there is only one real point of difference between this and any number of productions currently playing around the world: the cast and the musicians.
Melbourne has seen several iterations of this production – ironically starring Caroline O’Connor, who is currently hamming it up rather joylessly in Spider Woman – but this is possibly the best of the lot. There’s something about the pops, the slides and the smoky knowingness that is just right; it’s slick without being soulless, and it’s tight without being impacted. It shouldn’t be surprising that a show that has already played in Sydney and Brisbane would feel this confident and in command, but what is surprising is the feeling of abandon, that wild streak that lets an audience know anything could happen. That’s joy, and it’s nigh impossible to fake.
Central to the production’s success is of course the show’s leading ladies, who have to not only be damn good, they have to be charming as fuck. Alinta Chidzey as Velma Kelly and Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Roxie Hart are both unrelenting dynamos, and they power the whole thing from opening number to closing. But better than that, they hint at layers of meaning just under the surface of the piece; there is an unmistakable sense of homoeroticism, or at least a complete buckling of the heteronormative bullshit in which they’ve been forced to participate.
Chidzey’s is probably the less surprising performance, simply because she’s been so good in roles that haven’t precisely suited her, and this is one she seems born to play. She burns up the space with her sensuality and her flinty demeanour; her flirtatiousness is only ever a notch on her weaponry. Her dance routines are either hilarious or dazzling, and usually both, and her voice is a rich and sultry provocation.
Bassingthwaighte is surprising not in that “I didn’t know she could do that” kind of way, but because she is such a deeply seductive comic talent, who also manages to plumb some depths in the character that I, for one, have never seen before. Her Roxie only gradually realises the potential of her own charms, so that her key titular number is an elongated, perfectly modulated, utterly hilarious emergence from the chrysalis. The audience does love her, and she loves us and we love her for loving us. But beyond this, Bassingthwaighte is arrestingly contemplative, even deep. Profoundly shallow, perhaps, but moving nonetheless.
Apart from Rodney Dobson, who makes a beautifully trusting dunderhead of Amos, two Donovans comprise the major support of the show. Jason Donovan replaces Tom Burlinson as so-slick-you’d-slip-on-him Billy Flynn, and Casey Donovan plays Matron “Mama” Morton, the keeper of the keys. She smashes her opening number ‘When You’re Good to Mama’ out of the park, which makes his less than impressive ‘All I Care About is Love’ feel like a deflating balloon. He improves whenever he’s required to be cynical and disgusted, but she is fabulous literally every second she appears.
Apart from that mostly jaw-dropping cast, with an ensemble to die for, the production sports some musicianship worthy of any Broadway show. The brass gets to show off the most, understandably given how vital they are to the score, but there is also terrific work from the keys and the limited strings. The sound design is flawless, every word crystal clear. There is a kind of perfection that drives home a dramatic point, and this production knows exactly where to place it.
Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman weren’t Kander and Ebb’s only prison shows: their extraordinary collaboration concluded with the sublime The Scottsboro Boys in 2010, about a group of young black men wrongly accused and imprisoned for rape. Chicago isn’t particularly concerned with imprisonment, and it’s a show with almost nothing serious to say about morality either, but it is wholly aware of the flimflam of showbiz, the sheer effort it takes to look sincere when you know “you’re just disgusting”. If this is what moral depravity looks like in 2020, sign me up, baby.