Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse’s much adored musical, Chicago has been tantalising audiences with its 1920s jazz-aged inspired tale of ‘murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery’ —basically everything that makes a steamy crime novel read— since 1975. The multi award-winning, ornately funny Chicago (based on the real-life inspired play by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins) is back in town to entertain Capetonians.
Billed as 'still the sexiest musical', Chicago promises audiences a bold, dazzling tale told with witty humour and style. It takes hot jazz, marries it with cold murder, and puts it all to music that speaks perfectly to the Fosse dance style: It's the quintessential ‘all that jazz’.
The latest staging —presented by Showtime Management in association with Barry & Fran Weissler and David Ian— delivers on almost ‘all those things we hold near and dear to our [murder-musical loving] hearts’. I say almost, because it's perhaps just a little too safe to be unquestionably sexy. It does have a sultry element that, with a hint of hidden passion amplified by great music and vibrant dance numbers, slay with the manipulative jealousy-driven tale of two ruthless, spotlight-chasing women —one a sister and the other a lover poorer by intentional ‘accident’.
Giving stage presence to these two murderous dames are award-winning performers, Samantha Peo (Velma Kelly) and Carmen Pretorius (Roxy Hart). Peo and company's ‘All That Jazz’ number starts the show off on an amazing high, and Pretorius tugs on the Hart-strings with her rendition of the exceptionally performed 'Roxie', ‘Funny Honey’ and ‘Me and My Baby’.
Though individually very pleasing, their performance as Velma and Roxy feel a bit out of sync (in relation to each other) in the first half of the show: Peo fully embraces the vaudeville comedy character of this musical, while Pretorius is all flirty-fun with a more subdued and reserved rather than coquettishly trumped-up-demure take on her character. The highlighting of their contrasting styles with extremes may very well be a directional choice. If so, it just didn’t speak to me personally; it rather impacted on the degree to which I as audience member invested my own energy in the glamour of their rivalry. Admittedly, their onstage flair did seem to even out after intermission in a more cohesive and complimentary fashion.
That aside, Peo has a great rapport with Ilse Klink as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, which makes their delivery of ‘Class’ a harmonious treat. The ultimate crowd-pleaser is Grant Towers as Amos, Roxy’s gullible husband. Towers absolutely charms with his performance of ‘Mister Cellophane’ that, in terms of audience empathy and emotion, makes up for the fact that Amos narratively can't capture the heart of the Hart he so longs for. As the invisible underdog, Amos having the stand-out opening night performance is a lovely, honest twist. Another Chicago charmer is Craig Urbani in the role of Billy Flynn. His performance as the smooth-talking, media-attention soliciting, fiction-advocating lawyer is all charisma all the time. Urbani's fantastic presence was furthermore impressively matched by Pretorius in 'We Both Reached For The Gun'.
Although the all South African cast is truly talented —each appealing to audiences for different reasons— the true star of this staging of Chicago the Musical is unquestionably the utterly fabulous ensemble. The Chicago company is all razzle, dazzle, and a good dose of pizazz! With their flawless moves, they deliver a performance that Fosse would have approved of.
The power of their slinky moves captivating an audience can't be underestimated as the show has a strikingly minimalist set, with the band taking centre stage. Every Fosse-move —from the tucked knees, sideways shuffles, and the shoulder and hip rolls to the jazz hands, fabulous kicks, and dramatic finger snaps— enthralls. The ensemble is slick and sensational, all of them, elevating ‘Cell Block Tango’ and ‘Razzle Dazzle’ to spellbinding numbers.
Pair the Chicago company’s fanciful moves with a band that clearly loves performing and a conductor, Bryan Schimmel, who will capture any musical lover's heart, and you get an amusing and enjoyable show experience.
An ensemble and band alone however does not a musical like Chicago make. A lot depends on the appeal of the leads to enchant and allure: I truly wanted to not just like, but absolutely love, Chicago with every musical adoring molecule in my body. Sadly, the 'Hot Honey Rag' performance as the big Fosse showstopper was but lukewarm and probably why I'm slightly saddened that Chicago did not fully live up to my expectations: The 'Hot Honey Rag' of opening night was just not hot enough to convince me that the current staging of Chicago is all that it can be. As the glitter was glitzed-up for the finale, Peo was entertaining and on vaudeville form with great presence, but by the end the equally talented Pretorius sadly looked to be phoning it in —the moves were there; the sparkle wasn’t. Perhaps this is the exhaustion-curse of an internationally touring production. I suspect this will quickly change as the production settles again and is revitalised by the energy of local audiences.
So, what does this all come to as far as recommendations go?
If you loved the movie and you adore the music, I’m willing to bet that you’ll enjoy the show as I did too. Even with the above mentioned reservations, Chicago the Musical is a lovely night out. Your ticket will get you a very sleek production, with catchy musical numbers and flashy moves. If you curb your enthusiasm slightly, then Chicago is a great vaudeville musical take on murder as showbiz, where the comedy hits as hard as the moves.
Chicago the Musical is onstage at the Artscape Opera House until 14 April 2019, with tickets available through Computicket.