By BRUCE DENNILL
Chicago / Resident director: Philip Godawa / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
This 2019 version of the 1996 revival of a 1975 Broadway musical that was based on a play written in 1926 shouldn’t still have as much currency as it does. But ironically, because times have changed, it’s possible to see that humans as a species haven’t, much, and so we’re still susceptible to the same emotions and tendencies towards less than salubrious goals and ambitions.
Another way in which humans haven’t changed is in our collective appreciation of a good show, and this production of Chicago has already been roundly praised half the world over, with its South African cast and crew only launching the show on home turf after hugely successful tours of New Zealand and China.
This shared experience means the company on the Johannesburg stage is almost telepathically tight, trusting each other’s every movement and thus able to hit every mark with slick, confident ease. That is, of course, not to say that Chicago is a simple show. The stage space on which the all-dancing, all-singing cast operate is restricted by the placement of the large, tiered dias occupied by musical director Bryan Schimmel and his superb band, including a horn section that brilliantly galvanises the sultry, enduring Kander and Ebb score and cheerfully rubber-faced drummer Luca De Billis. And the choreography is both ceaselessly sexy and requiring of constantly focused dynamism and élan if the show is to deliver on one of its core allures – the fast-paced, sensual razzle dazzling of its audience.
The larger-than-life, Hollywood gloss nature of Chicago’s protagonists means casting actors with natural star wattage makes for maximum impact, and it’s unlikely that the collective charisma of the leading trio of Samantha Peo as Velma Kelly, Carmen Pretorius as Roxie Hart and Craig Urbani as Billy Flynn could be improved on.
Peo, particularly, is a magnetic presence, playing Velma as slightly less aggressive and more droll than the character has sometimes come across in other productions, which, happily, allows the actress to give her utterly filthy guffaw a couple of extra outings. Peo’s solos are some of the highlights of the show, with I Can’t Do It Alone (with its intricate unaccompanied choreography) and When Velma Takes The Stand both outstanding.
The fact that Roxie comes across as authentically scheming, superficial and often downright nasty says much for the brilliant acting chops of Pretorius, with the actress being more or less the antithesis of all of those characteristics offstage. Her vocal work is arguably not as authoritative in this instance (there is a fair bit down in the bottom end of her register), but she makes any apparent uncertainty fit her character – Roxie’s state of mind is the most fickle and unpredictable throughout the story – while still showing off her gold-standard talent in the character’s setpieces.
Urbani’s stock-in-trade has been a combination of confidence and charm that few can resist, and lawyer Billy Flynn, though an oily, greedy sort, is a perfect fit for those characteristics. His introductory number, All I Care About, is hilarious and profoundly cynical, positioning the character as someone the audience both love and distrust.
Other notable performers are Ilse Klink as Mama Morton – top-notch throughout, but with her duet Class (with Peo) standing out as a masterclass in simpatico singing – and Grant Towers as Amos Hart, Roxie’s gentle, cuckolded husband. His exquisite take on the always heart-rending Mr Cellophane ensures that his relatively limited stage time has lasting resonance.
It must be said that every member of the company draws the eye at some point, not just for their physical attractiveness (you can almost sense unattached members of the audience filling out their mental dance cards), but for the animation and intensity they each bring to their roles.
This is a company that still has much work to do together – after Johannesburg, the tour continues to (at least) Germany and Austria. On this evidence, they are a formidable performance unit – sleek, sexy and self-assured – but also fizzing with personal and professional chemistry. Given that there are reflections of the theatre lifestyle in the Chicago storyline – ambition erodes ethics in reality as much as in fiction – here’s hoping that those apparent strengths will help everyone maintain the high standards they’ve achieved so far.