Chicago the Musical – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It is not often that I get the opportunity to attend a musical that I have seen before, in a return production. I am not talking about an encore season; I am talking about a production that was once here several years ago and has now returned. In this case, it is none other than Chicago.

Chicago the Musical has a long history. Originally opening in 1975, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Ebb and Rob Fosse, Chicago is based on a 1926 play of the same name written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Set in the early 1920s, the plot follows the incarceration of strong, female characters. Their crimes range from murder to adultery, and all things in-between. And whilst most of them are guilty as hell, they all plead innocence. These women are more than just criminals, in the eyes of the citizens of Chicago, they are rock stars! One sly lawyer sees an opportunity to exploit this fame in an effort to get them a favourable verdict at trial.

I’ll admit, it’s not the most solid plot, and it might be one of the reasons the original production failed to wow audiences. It had all of the bells and whistles and fell flat.

Well, in 1996, the musical saw a revival in a stripped back production that became a huge hit, winning a Tony Award for best revival in the same year and an Oliver Award in 1997 for Outstanding Musical Production. It even had a film adaptation in 2002. However, the biggest accolade would be that it currently holds the record for the longest running active revival of a musical on Broadway and has no sign of slowing down.

The initial Australian production originally opened in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the 2019 production at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre and absolutely loved it. Now, in 2024, Chicago has returned to Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre with a brand-new cast, and it is arguably the best production yet!

Starring; Zoë Ventoura as Velma Kelly, locked up for the double-murder of her cheating husband and her own sister. Lucy Maunder as Roxie Hart, who is on trial for the murder of her lover after an argument. And Aussie theatre royalty, Anthony Warlow as Billy Flynn, the opportunistic lawyer earning big bucks on the coattails of his client’s stardom. We also have Asabi Goodman as jailhouse warden, Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, Peter Rowsthorn as Amos Hart, Roxie’s doting husband and S. Valeri as Mary Sunshine. There is also a stunning slew of ensemble cast that are all incredibly talented.

Chicago is unlike most traditional theatre productions. The orchestra is not tucked away under the stage, or hidden at the back, it is right in the middle for everyone to see. On a tiered platform, surrounded by a golden frame, the orchestra is more a jazz band, becoming a secondary character to those around them. To the wings of the stage are a set of wooden chairs, where the ensemble is perched, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

Now, if you’ve never seen this production before, I am sure you have heard some of the iconic musical numbers from this show, with Ventoura’s Velma Kelly kicking the show off with one of the most recognisable numbers  ‘All That Jazz’.

I am not afraid to admit that I was hesitant when I heard that Ventoura was cast in this production. Having only known her from her work on television, I wasn’t sure how she would fit into a musical theatre production. Well, I was happily proven wrong the moment she stepped onto stage. Not only does she draw your attention with her commanding stage presence, but her dancing is absolutely flawless, and her vocals are equally as impressive. Later in the production, she even shows off her comedic side to a resounding laughter from the audience. Zoë Ventoura is a force not to be underestimated and is the perfect fit for Velma Kelly.

Lucy Maunder’s Roxie Hart is cute, sexy and witty, but Roxie is also a very callus and selfish character. Not an easy personality to pull off, but with the acting skills that Maunder has under her belt, she pulls it off with ease. Maunder also has the vocal chops and dance skills to elevate the performance. Her rendition of her namesake number ‘Roxie’ is one to look forward to, as is her acting in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, Maunder makes everything look effortless. She is the perfect pairing to Ventoura’s Velma and their chemistry, well, distain for one another’s characters onstage is quite the sight to see.

Then we have the vocal powerhouse of Asabi Goodman as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton who absolutely blew the roof off with her rendition of ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Whilst it is really the only musical number her character has, Goodman leaves a lasting impression.

Alongside Roxie Hart is the doting character of Amos Hart. Her loving husband that flip flops between hating her for her betrayal and loving her because he sees the good in everyone. And the actor behind this character is easily the best one I have seen in the role yet, Peter Rowsthorn. Famously known for his role in the iconic comedy series Kath & Kim, Rowsthorn spreads his musical theatre wings with a performance that blew me away.

Rowsthorn effortlessly switches between the love and hate he has for his cheating wife, but it is his performance of ‘Mr. Cellophane’ that truly impressed me. It is a relatively simple number, but it is the body language that really sells it and Rowsthorn knocks it out of the park. Not to mention, the man can hold a note! I am surprised there wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of this number. Bravo, Peter Rowsthorn! Bravo!

Speaking of notes, S. Valeri was a complete surprise as Mary Sunshine. A character that I had completely forgotten about. One that I will not easily forget this time around! Their vocals are angelic and will have you gasping in your seats. Their surprise towards the end of the show is also well worth the wait!

It’s easy to see that everyone in this return production of Chicago is incredible in their respective roles. From the main cast to the ensemble, everybody is as strong as each other, elevating the performances to the next level. But there is one such outstanding cast member that I have yet to mention, Anthony Warlow as Billy Flynn.

To tell you that I was excited about his announcement in this production would be an understatement. Not only because of Warlow’s amazing talents as a singer, but because I was curious to see what he would do with such a selfish, money hungry, greedy Casanova of a character in Billy Flynn. Well, I was not disappointed.  Warlow really is an Australian theatre icon and seeing him in this role is an absolute treat. His vocals are unmatched.

Warlow’s version of ‘All I Care About’ is gorgeous, but it would have to be his performance of ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ alongside Maunder that really floored me with the speedy lyrics but the dancing is just as fast. The more I see of Warlow on stage, the more I fall in love with him as a theatre performer. Truly one of our greatest.

Of course, the ensemble cast each get their own chance to shine, stepping into pseudo narration roles and side characters throughout the show. But one number stands out from the rest, the iconic ‘Cell Block Tango’. Easily one of the best and sexiest numbers you may ever see on a theatre stage. This song and performance alone is worth the visit. There is even a limited-edition gin named after this number! But more on that in another review.

Now, as I mentioned before, the staging is minimal but highly effective. Not only does it bring the band to the front and centre, but it leaves nowhere to hide for anyone. This elevates everyone’s performances and really draws focus to their skills. The choreography, recreated by Gary Chryst, is executed with pin-point precision. The band, led by musical director James Simpson, is also just as faultless. Just look out for the drummer playing a pivotal role in the sound effect department. Ken Billington’s lighting design is simplistic, yet effective, and as a tech nerd, the timing of these sequences are impeccable.

It is easy to say that Chicago the Musical is fantastic, but it is more than that. This production is one of the tightest technically executed shows I have ever seen. There is absolutely no weakness in any of the cast and those that shine not only do so alone, but they elevate the performers around them. I honestly cannot stress this enough! The 2024 Australian return of Chicago the Musical is the best one yet.

Chicago the Musical is currently playing in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre until the 26th of May.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.

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