Review by Bradley Chapman
Ninety-nine years ago, in the jazz-fuelled city of Chicago, Illinois, Beulah Annan, shot and killed her lover Harry Kolstedt while her husband, Albert, was at work.
Despite Albert’s attempt to take the blame, Beulah was arrested and sent to the Cook County Jail [sic] to await trial. Around the same time, intrepid first-time reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Maurine Dallas Watkins, was assigned to write a piece about inmates of Cook County “from a woman’s perspective”.
Watkins focused on Beulah, as well as three other women accused of murder: Belva Gaertner, a cabaret performer; Kitty Malm, known to journalists as “the Tiger Girl”; and Sabella Nitti, an immigrant and the first woman ever sentenced to death in Chicago.
But Watkins didn’t want to write sob-stories, and she was critical of Beulah’s account which changed several times. She was also not swayed by what she saw as obvious strategies and of Beulah’s “showman” lawyer W. W. O’Brien, who seemed to have coached Beulah on how to flirt with the jury, including instructing her to innocently powder her nose as the findings were announced. He even interrupted her several times throughout her testimony to correct Beulah’s recount of events, most notably cutting her off to remind her that “you BOTH reached for the gun!” – even though Kolstedt had been shot in the back.
A flash of a garter, a threat of divorce, a fainting spell and a fake pregnancy later, Beulah was acquitted of all charges.
Watkins was unimpressed. She mocked the jury for not being ‘beauty-proof’ and lamented that in Chicago, a pretty face would always go free. She also lambasted her fellow female reporters for being taken in by the obvious gambits and influencing public opinion with their sentimentality.
A few years later, Watkins channelled her disdain of the justice system into her biting play, Chicago. The play is considered a satire, but Watkins hardly exaggerated real life in writing it. Much of the play’s dialogue is lifted from press statements and headlines of the time, and whilst the names have been changed, the connections to these real-world figures is obvious.
Watkin’s play was a huge success. It inspired many film adaptations over the years, and A-list stars vied for the starring role of Beul – I mean, Roxie Hart.
In 1975, the story was once again thrown into the spotlight with the premiere of Kander and Ebb’s stage musical of the same name. There are many who would argue, with good reason, that it was and is the greatest musical of all time (personally, I think that accolade goes to Kander and Ebb’s earlier masterpiece, Cabaret, but that’s not what this piece is about).
The musical was revived countless times across the world and has since become one of Broadway’s longest running shows as well as inspiring a critically acclaimed film adaptation in 2002. Now, it has found its way to Spotlight Theatre on the Gold Coast.
And so, director Cilla Scott was faced with an enormous challenge – how do you make a century-old story, one of the most popular in theatre history, a fresh and purposeful experience for audiences in 2023?
Well, happily, Scott found a way. The result is perhaps the best production Spotlight audiences have ever been gifted.
Where to begin with this? The first thing that hits you when you enter the Halpin Auditorium is the clear aesthetic, so that seems as good a place to start as any. Set design by Michael Sutton is the perfect blend of minimalism and detail, which echoes the simplicity of the plot but the complexity of its meaning. The lighting design by Andrew Panda Hayden face is a wonder here, transforming the space with each spotlight and hue – although a few lighting cues were a little behind on opening night.
The ambience is amplified by the exceptional vocals, led by vocal director Shari Ward, and the mesmerising choreography of Paula Guild. Both hit hard from the show’s opening number, All That Jazz, and never falter. Truly, the impact of the choreography cannot be overstated. Guild has imbued each number with its own life and world. This is clearest in the show’s best number, the Press Conference Rag, but every routine is excellent.
Billy Flynn sings of how a little ‘Razzle Dazzle’ can be used to distract the audience, but ironically, the stripped bare nature of Chicago actually never relies on this tactic. What it relies on is a phenomenal cast at its centre, and it couldn’t succeed if this was not first-rate.
We first meet the phenomenal Tiffany DeLuca as Velma Kelly. It’s difficult to capture the extent of this performance in words. Chicago expects its Velma to act her heart out, perform lengthy, intense choreography, then move straight into an emotional ballad, before pulling up her stockings and doing it all over again. Magically, DeLuca pulls off every aspect of this exhausting role and still manages to put her own spin on Velma while doing so. She presents us with a desperately unhappy woman who perhaps gave up hope a long time ago – she knows when she’s being swindled but can do nothing about it, giving her a uniquely critical perspective on this broken system that never fully works for or against her.
As Billy Flynn, Roxie and Velma’s opportunistic lawyer, Brad Kendrick is a flawless delight. From his first appearance it is clear that Kendrick has made Flynn his own. His decision to give Flynn a kindly, southern Atticus Finch-esque drawl when speaking to the audience or the press, only to drop that pretence for a sharper, Chicagoan gangster lilt at other times, is a genius move. We get a Flynn who is both comic and terrifying, and so much fun to watch.
Stav Giouzelis’ Mama Morton is a quick audience favourite, bringing strength and gravitas to the space with just a peppering of kindness – when it benefits her. Nathan Skaines as Mary Sunshine is a wonderfully nuanced comic take. Skaines doesn’t rely on the ‘man in a dress’ trope for comedy. He has clearly considered every beat of his performance and the result is unexpectedly joyous. Joe Bourke as Roxie’s hapless husband Amos tugs at the heartstrings, though I suspect a man with Bourke’s charisma would hardly be a ‘Mister Cellophane’ outside of this role.
They are supported by a talented ensemble who perform the demanding show with deftness and skill that amplifies the production. There’s too much talent to list, but Leilani Frost, Hayley Green and Sunny J are deserving of some extra recognition.
Now onto what I REALLY want to talk about: Kristine Dennis as Roxie Hart. Whilst Roxie, Flynn and Velma usually receive equal billing, Roxie by far has the most to do. Chicago is her story, and she’s the backbone of the entire piece. So she needs to be good. And my oh my. What. A. Performance. Dennis’s Roxie is perfection. A would-be Vaudeville star who fancies herself a sex symbol without realising her own awkwardness. It is a triumph of comedy. A triumph of theatre. This performance alone is worth far more than the ticket price. Roxie has been played on screen by Ginger Rogers, Renee Zellweger and Gwenn Verdon. And this performance outshines them all.
Like Dennis’s Roxie, Cilla Scott’s approach to the whole show can be summed up in one word: nuanced. The attention to detail in the directing, the finishing touches on every scene and every moment are what sell this show. They are what make Chicago a unique experience. And they are what make this production, ninety-nine years on from the murder that inspired it, feel new.
Whilst the story is old, Scott and her team understand that its relevance has never faded. In fact, and if you’ll pardon this grotesque cliché: it is “more relevant than ever”. We may no longer have Beulah Annans and Roxie Harts dominating the news cycle, but in a world of Andrew Tates and Kanye Wests, and others whose status and showmanship earns them forgiveness for otherwise heinous behaviour, it seems we haven’t come that far either.
The intermission audience chat is way too long and detracts from the momentum of the show.
Chicago is playing at sold-out shows at Spotlight Theatre until 18 March. For more information, visit Spotlight Theatre’s website.