Chicago. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, based on the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Directed by Jim McMullen. Musical director: Chris Ronan. Choreographers: Emily Appleton and Hannah Carey. Erindale Theatre. March 9-25. Tickets $25-$55. philo.org.au.
When Chicago premiered on Broadway in 1975, it might have been a bit ahead of its time. It didn't seem like it - director, choreographer and co-writer Bob Fosse was creating it in the aftermath of the disillusioning scandal of Watergate and it was adapted from a 1926 play inspired by two-real life court cases. But although the show was a hit, running for more than 900 performances, it was overshadowed critically and commercially by the success of another showbiz-themed show, A Chorus Line, which ran for more than 6000 performances - then a record run - and won nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
But while the more hopeful, striving A Chorus Line's reputation and success endures, it's arguably the cynical, sassy Chicago that is more in tune with our times.The 1996 Broadway revival has become the second-longest-running Broadway musical, topped only by current champion The Phantom of the Opera - and won six Tony Awards. The 2002 film version won the best picture Oscar.
As the director of Canberra Phiharmonic Society's new production, Jim McMullen, says: "It is a show for the ages - it's a cynical view about the media and the legal system and glorifying crime."
In Chicago in 1924, the era of Prohibition and Al Capone, would-be performer Roxie Hart (played by Vanessa de Jager) kills her lover and is sent to jail awaiting trial for murder. While there she meets established star Velma Kelly (Kelly Roberts), who shot her husband and his lover. Under the avaricious eye of Matron "Mama" Morton (Shell Tully) all the women on "Murderer's Row" vie for the services of the slick and successful defence lawyer Billy Flynn (Will Huang). Velma and Roxie are particularly bitter rivals for the attention of Billy and the media, as Roxie's hapless husband Amos (Jonathan Rush) looks in in bewilderment.
At a time when "fake news", "alternative facts" and media manipulation are constantly discussed, the US and the world have seen a reality TV star become the American president and have avidly followed such celebrity media circuses as the OJ Simpson trial, Chicago could hardly be more pertinent.
Fosse's original Chicago was subtitled "A Musical Vaudeville" and one of the things McMullen wants to do is take his production back to the show's roots by emphasising the vaudeville aspects.
"It's a tribute to different people and a tribute to all the different styles of vaudeville," he says.
Musical director Chris Ronan will double as MC while the various acts are presented, ranging from ventriloquism to tap dancing. The characters will perform numbers that evoke or subvert such traditional styles as the romantic ballad and the money-isn't-everything song, simultaneously paying homage to old-time music and performers like Sophie Tucker and Marilyn Miller - whose styles and influences are still remembered even when their names are half-forgotten - and advancing the story or the cynical themes of the show.
Central to all this is Billy Flynn, described by Huang as "a master manipulator ... the best defence attorney in the city with an impeccable reputation". Flynn has never lost a case, Huang says, "which he owes to his ability to charm the jury and the press while twisting the facts to suit his angle. He's an extremely charismatic showman in the courtroom who can puppeteer the audience however he sees fit."
"Billy is always wearing one mask or another, depending on who he is dealing with," Huang says. "He only really reveals his true self when dealing one-on-one with his clients at which point his narcissism and chauvinism becomes clear. Billy's only true loves are money and himself. Tensions rise between him and Roxie when her attitude and actions threaten to ruin their case, and in turn, his perfect track record.
"Billy is essentially the embodiment of the overarching theme that you can get away with anything as long as you control its perception, or can pay the right price."
"My personal favourite number is We Both Reached For The Gun, in which Billy puppeteers Roxie like a ventriloquist as he spins a story for the press. The song showcases how easily the public can be manipulated as Billy literally pulls their strings. I think it's going to look fantastic."
De Jager and Roberts say their characters are both lusting for success in showbiz - in Velma's case, keeping what she had, in Roxie's case, attaining it - and they're not above using their notoriety as reported killers if that's what it takes. This was, after all, the era when Al Capone and other criminals were regularly making headlines in the press: evil always had its allure.
They are slightly different, however. De Jager says Roxie is "very selfish and childlike and acts on impulse at times".
"She's drawn by fame and wants to be successful and is willing to do whatever it takes to get her there."
Velma, having already tasted success, is a bit more pragmatic about knowing when and how to capitalise on her reputation, Roberts says, knowing that "you only have 15 minutes - fame is fleeting".
De Jager says, "It takes Roxie till the very end to figure that out".