Encore Theatre Company
March 11th, 2022
Arriving at the Princess Theatre for opening night of Encore Theatre Company’s latest production, Chicago; I was profoundly nervous, and I wasn’t even going to be performing. This was the most excitement I had felt in the lead up to an Encore production in many years; due to my own experience into the world of Ebb and Kander in LMS’ 2013 production, which became a highlight of my own theatrical journey. With a fresh-faced production team behind the wheel, the feeling of a new era being ushered in was apparent and once the lights went up and the curtain rose, that couldn’t have felt more accurate.
Chicago; the longest running American musical of all time, and the winner of Best Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards; follows Roxie Hart, a young woman who murders her lover and is arrested; despite her attempts to convince her husband Amos to lie for her. In Jail she meets double murderess and famed nightclub performer Velma Kelly, and the two women vie for celebrity and notoriety with the help of their superstar lawyer, Billy Flynn, via manipulation of the media and the court, continually attempting to exceed each other’s stories.
Heading in, I was apprehensive in the overall casting and suitability about the age of the actors playing these roles. Everyone appeared too young and although I knew the calibre of expertise was undeniable, the shortage in life experience appeared to be a confusing misstep. However fortunately, with only a few exceptions, this cast was able to subvert my expectations, and converted this initially perceived lack of worldly wisdom, into new perspectives on these well known and loved characters.
Abbey Hansson’s performance as Velma Kelly was lavishly brimming with a ferocious sophistication despite her relatively youthful presence. Her recently acquired professional experiences has enhanced her already impressive vocals and this performance gives a young Catherine Zeta Jones a run for her money.
The same can be said for Samantha Hammersley as Mama Morton; another accomplished performer whose expertise and staunch conviction proves that regardless of whether the perceived age of Mama Morton didn’t align with her own, she’d successfully convince the writers that they were wrong. Easily one of the most astounding voices in Tasmania, Hammersley brings an elegant refinement to Mama which maintains her tenacious and hardened exterior. Personally, I was extremely relieved that I chose to rug up in the audience that night, as the chills experienced while observing these two extraordinary performers singing ‘Class’ was genuinely Antarctic. Neither Hansson or Hammersley attempted to out-sing each other and the simple staging guaranteed that no distractions interrupted the audience from soaking in the Class on stage.
Superstar lawyer, Billy Flynn, was played with an affable charm by Jimmy Harrison. Altering the assumption that Flynn must be a slick, condescending and sordid middle-aged man, Harrison intelligently utilised his age and life experience to conceive a version of Flynn that provided the perception of a friend to his clients. Joel King’s performance as Roxie’s beleaguered husband Amos Hart, a character which I had firsthand knowledge of, brought brand new discoveries to the role which I had so lovingly called my own for so long. While his vocals in Mr Cellophane were somewhat hidden behind his comedic performance, his pitch perfect delivery throughout, presented the interpretation of Amos we hope for.
Unfortunately, Marina Lee as Roxie Hart, was the only lead I was unable to be completely persuaded by. While her performance was extraordinary, a truly undeniable triple threat; at only 17, I found there were pivotal moments during the characters trajectory, where the conviction in her performance was left wanting as her age restricted her from total connection. However, the chemistry between Velma and Roxie was electric, the age differential here being compelling and effective. There is absolutely no question that Marina is an incredible performer and is destined for a big career, it just feels that Roxie was given to her 2 or 3 years too soon.
Ross Marsden, as a first-time director, embraced the moments when the show provided an opportunity for him to present his style. Unfortunately, the Vaudevillian structure of Chicago, does present difficulties in trying to explore radically different staging, but when Marsden found these occasions, he excelled. Utilising the simplistic but effective set design (by Darryl Rogers), compelling tableaus were formed on a ladder (Which also cleverly offered a use of levels) and the exuberantly comically choreographed portions of the courtroom scene, delivered a tongue in cheek satirical look at fame, celebrity, and the manipulation of media rather than the commonly expected dark, sexy and nefarious Chicago productions so often staged.
This show felt distinctively unlike other Encore productions from the minute the curtain rose on act one. It felt uncomplicated, with less bells and whistles; but intensely focused on an awareness of a community within. This type of show is what Encore should continue to produce, following a path of generating above excellent community musical theatre, without preoccupations on commercial success. This culture of community and the passion to be “all in this together” is what I hope will win out with every company in Northern Tasmania.
“Chicago” stands aloft as what I believe to be the best Encore show in years. Do your best to get along and support this production.
Review by Matt Taylor