Iona Performing Arts Centre
September 29 – October 13
Everyone knows six time Tony Award winning musical “Chicago”, if only from its 2002 movie. And it is little wonder; the Kander and Ebb classic has a score full of iconic, toe-tapping tunes in homage to the music of the 1920s. Its popularity is evident in Savoyard’s virtually sold-out season of the show prior even to its start. And after opening night, it is easy to appreciate why.
Firstly, the company allows the show, first and foremost, to be about its music. The marvellous elevated orchestra (Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne) not only takes centre stage visually but is wonderfully showcased in both the overture and finale of the spirited show. And from the moment they lead us from overture to ‘All That Jazz’, as vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Joanna Nash) welcomes us to mid-1920s Chicago with tell of how she murdered her husband and her sister when she found them in bed together, we are well and truly in the mood, even if it is a somewhat sedate take of the seductive opener.
It is not just the musical’s iconic status that is grand. And despite the production’s over 40 cast members, things never feel claustrophobic on stage. In fact, the ensemble numbers really shine in their razzle dazzle. And Act One’s ‘Cell Block Tango’ in which inmates describe the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, showcases Desney Toia-Sinapati’s creative choreography that allows its monologues’ punchlines to shine amongst expressive vocals without losing its Bob Fossey feel. And it is not only a choreographic style that is evident; costumes are era-evocative in their detail with art deco-esque touches to the dance attire of the Tango’s merry murderesses for example. Staging is similarly visually imaginative, especially in Act Two’s courtroom circus scenes.
While the story is primarily of publicity-hungry murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart (Heidi Enchelmaier), in Cook County Jail competition to outwit each other and obtain more media fame, it is enhanced by its cast of supporting characters. In this instance, Danika Saal may not be all Mamma Morton sass, but she does do vocal justice to the saucy, show-stopping outline of the Matron’s mutual-aid corruption, ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Joshua Moore makes for a youthful Billy Flynn (the very reason Hugh Jackman passed on the movie role). The masterful (but costly) lawyer seems more slick than suave in his shiny suit, but again, his vocals are excellent in unfeeling rather than charismatic croon about how all he cares about is his love of money (‘All I Care About’). Another less exuberant number comes from Roxie’s discarded, downtrodden husband Amos who laments his chronic invisibility in ‘Mr. Cellophane’. Rod Jones not only makes the solo wistful in sentiment, but manages the balance of pathos and humour required of the role.
Ultimately, however, this is a show about celebrity criminals, Velma and Roxie. Heidi Encheimaier is excellent in conveying Roxie’s transformation from a nobody chorus girl ‘dumb mechanic’s wife’ to brassy, brazen celebrity after she murders her nightclub regular lover Fred.
Encheimaier’s performance is not so much as a vulnerable little-girl-lost but a woman of single-minded ambition, and the result is compelling despite her character’s dislikeable self-absorption and her goofy animation as dummy atop Billy’s knee as her press conference turns into a ventriloquist act with Billy dictating her version of the truth while she mouths the words in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, is one of the show’s highlights. And she is superb in songs of her own voice too, especially in share of her narcissistic satisfaction with being the name on everybody’s lips in realisation of her fame fantasy, ‘Roxie’.
While Roxie is trying to get to vaudeville, vampy Velma Kelly has already been a star there. And Joanna Nash is dynamic in her vibrant stage presence as the slinky vixen, both vocally and physically. Her singing voice is era-appropriately smoky but strong, and she moves about the stage with an infectious, lithe energy. This is especially evident in her desperate musical attempt to entice Roxie to refashion the sister act, ‘I Can’t Do It Alone’, in which she acrobatically recreates both parts of the dance duet, along with improvised musical accompaniment of saxophones and alike.
“Chicago” is a solid-hit Broadway musical of the old-school sort, not just in its 1920s setting, but its sensibility of razzle dazzle jazz hands song and dance, even if its purpose is to satirise American values, corruption and cult of the celebrity criminal. While opening night of Savoyards “Chicago” suffers from some sound issues, these are minor and don’t spoil what is an entertaining evening for all, especially given its additional humour, such as is courtroom re-enactments of Roxie’s crime. Indeed, in its tribute to its music and libretto, under Sherryl-Lee Secomb’s direction, this “Chicago” is an over-the-top and whole-lot-of-fun night out in affection of the art of murder.
Photos – c/o Chris Thomas