Book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander. Blackout Theatre Company. Pioneer Theatre Castle Hill. 13 – 22 May, 2022.

Reviewed : 13 May, 2022*

Photo : Maria Gorelik

Chicago isn’t just a musical! It’s an adaptation of a play that’s based on real characters and real crimes that really did occur in Chicago in the 1920s. Crime reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote the original play in 1926. Accused murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner were the “celebrity criminals” on whom she based Roxie and Velma. Both were acquitted of all charges after being represented by lawyers William Scott Stewart and W. W. O’Brien, who became Billy Flynn in her play. After her death in 1969, her estate released the rights to adapt the play to Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb and composer John Kander.

What a context for a musical! Crime and corruption in the “Roaring Twenties”! Speakeasies, jazz and the Charleston! Between them Fosse, Ebb and Kander created a musical extravaganza that that has been delighting audiences – and performers – since 1975.

“Chutzpah” defines the mood of  Chicago. It’s bold and brassy. It gives the performers a chance to “strut their stuff’ with a bit of impudence and nerve – and director Jordan Anderson, with choreographers Daniel Lavercombe and Kim Shelly, give their cast every opportunity to do so. Coming on the back of a Covid-cancelled production of The Boy from Oz, their production brightens the mood with cheeky, chintzy costumes, lots of high kicks – and the jazzy, bright beat of the 1920s played by a thirteen-piece band led by musical director Koren Beale.

Photo : Maria Gorelik

Fiorella Bamba, as Velma Kelly, opens the show with the ever-popular “All That Jazz”.  Bamba is a highly qualified and experienced performer who radiates an energy and pizzazz that is sustained throughout the production. Her Velma is sassy, brazen, defiant – and provocatively appealing.

As are the dancers and singers who back her in the opening number – and the songs that follow. Whether behind bars in “Cell Block Tango” or flourishing feathers behind Billy Flynn in “All I care About”, they are, as a chorus line must be, in the moment, in time, and, very important in this musical, in character and audaciously bold. As are guys in the male chorus, who, though fewer in number, depict the flashy ‘spivs’ of the era with energy and dash.

Emelie Woods plays Roxie Hart, who upstages Velma’s popularity with the persistent press and avaricious Billy Flynn. Woods is an accomplished performer who portrays the duplicity of Roxie’s character clearly –  and her crafty cunning – especially when she sings “Funny Honey” and “Me and My Baby”.

When Roxie and Velma come together the musical sparks fly!

Photo : Maria Gorelik

Matron “Mama” Morton ‘presides’ over the cells of Cook County Jail, gleefully taking bribes from the prisoners to buy favours from the guards, the magistrates and the lawyers. Janina Hamerlok triumphs in the wicked power of this role. She is a highly experienced performer across all theatre forms, and so gives “Mama” the mischievous muscle and the full vocal power the role deserves.

Alistair Norris is the infamous Billy Flynn, holding the fortunes and future of his clients in his corrupt hands. Amos Hart, Roxie’s hapless husband, is played by Greg Thornton, who epitomises the easily duped, “cellophane”  simplicity of the character in an underplayed portrayal that is very effective.

Andrew Read surprises as a very confident and high-pitched Mary Sunshine, spreading “A Little Bit of Good” among the press gang who besiege the court.

Anderson and his creative team make this production a celebration of being back on stage. He has extended the atmosphere of celebration by taking the audience closer to the stage at cabaret style tables and connecting the performers more closely to the audience through the MC, played very effectively by Robert Hall.

Blackout has spared no expense or energy on this production, which should be a crowd pleaser for theatre-hungry north western Sydney audiences.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening Night