The North and South of Joburg are currently offering audiences big musical shows – and these productions couldn’t be more different when it comes to where they sit on a scale of mediocre to excellent.

There is, of course, Saturday Night Fever at Gold Reef City Casino – an enthusiastic and entertaining, although unforgivably badly-conceived show. But if you want to see a musical that excels in every aspect of its production, you need look no further than Chicago, now on at the Teatro Theatre at Montecasino.

Most will have seen the Oscar-winning big screen adaptation, but as good as that film was, it cannot prepare you for the impact of the live stage version.

If you don’t know the plot, it concerns a certain Roxie Hart, imprisoned for killing the man with whom she was having an affair. In prison, she meets Velma Kelly, the gorgeous and infamous vaudeville performer, also jailed for killing her lover (and sister).

They both battle for the attention of Chicago’s finest defence attorney – Billy Flynn – to ensure that they don’t hang. And, perhaps most importantly, they compete for the media spotlight and the ensuing front page headlines.

It’s an amoral story about celebrity, greed and vanity. Written in the 1970’s and inspired by a 1926 play of the same name, Chicago is a show more relevant to today’s celebrity-fuelled culture than ever before.

Although director Scott Faris and choreographer Gary Chryst are both American, this doesn’t detract from the achievement of the South African cast. This is two hours of our most charismatic performers singing expertly crafted songs and dancing sophisticated and sensual choreography backed by an on-stage 14-piece orchestra and little else.

While Saturday Night Fever’s plot hangs separately from its musical sequences, in Chicago these elements work seamlessly to spectacularly tell its story. Despite there being no fantastic sets or Lion King-style pyrotechnics, the audience is never bored or distracted.

Platinum blonde Amra-Faye Wright has played the ruthless Velma Kelly in London and New York and she’s impressively honed the part down to an art. She’s a living machine on stage – oozing dedication and precise commitment in every syllable and action. Samantha Peo’s Roxie Hart stole my heart; she exudes just the right amount of occasional vulnerability and warmth – despite being a self-obsessed fame-craving murderess.

Vocally, they all impress, but Ilse Klink as Mama Morton is stunning. That’s no shocker; this is something we’ve come to expect from her in every role she plays. And Craig Urbani as Billy Flynn, best known of late for his role in the soap Isidingo and a series of mushroom television commercials reminds us that he is also an immaculate musical performer.

Pierre Van Heerden, while competent, in my opinion, lacks some of the pathos required in the role of Amos and he risks simply coming across as a buffoon. One of my favourite moments in Chicago, the song Mister Cellophane, was somewhat disappointing as a result.

The rest of the 23 strong cast stun – not only with their dancing skills, but also their tightly muscled bodies; and the form-fitting costumes accentuate every bulge. The men, especially, give new meaning to the term “bubble butt” (even if you hate musicals, you’ll be entertained simply by the eye-candy on stage).

None of this is gratuitous of course; the sensuality of the performers is integral to the sexy Bob Fosse-originated choreography and the decadently jazzy sensibility of the show. It’s a slinky, witty and sophisticated production, beautifully performed and conceived.

Having seen Chicago a few years ago in the West End, this Joburg production is considerably superior – packed with fresh energy and sensual tension. If you want to see a world-class musical put on by world-class South African performers, stick to the North of Jozi.

Chicago is on at Montecasino’s The Teatro for a limited season until 18 May. Book at Computicket.

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