Before seeing the Canberra Philharmonic Society‘s (the Philo) production of Chicago, I was given a tour backstage and the opportunity to chat with some of the cast and crew. During this tour, I was struck by the community dynamic between everyone involved – how comfortable they were together, their dedication to the show, and the fact that they were committing their free time and any leftover energy they had after work, school, and other life commitments for free. No one was being paid and everyone was there for their love of theatre.
The Philo has been around since 1951, relying on ticket sales and volunteers to be able to keep producing more shows. Their focus is on bringing local people together to create a show that everyone is passionate about – the cast, crew, and orchestra are all based in Canberra, Australia. Chicago was their biggest production yet, with a cast of 35.
As we were shown backstage, I noticed how enthusiastic everyone was to be there. I myself was exceptionally enthusiastic to be given a glimpse into their world and to see their show that night, but I for once wasn’t the only one exuberating with high energy and excitement. The Stage Manager, Michelle Adamson, gladly took the time to show us her station where she watches the stage and communicates with the crew, and the Properties Manager, Mick Andrews, was happy to spend time holding a prop newspaper for me to take a quick photo of. I am grateful to them for sharing their valuable and very busy time.
Rhys Madigan, who showed us around the theatre, told us that his day job is in IT, which is a completely different
world to the one of theatre. His love of theatre led him to joining the Philo and, for this production, he was put way out of his comfort zone to join the ensemble and sing and dance on stage. This is what local theatre provides that bigger production companies do not. They allow you to challenge yourself, try something new, and be a part of something that you wouldn’t otherwise because of the career path that you’ve taken.
We ended the tour in the dressing room and sat down with two cast members – Kelly Roberts who played Velma Kelly and Vanessa de Jager who played Roxie Hart. Straight away, I could tell that their on stage presence would have a strong dynamic from the rapport that they had. Both Kelly and Vanessa have been involved with several local theatre productions and both have day jobs as teachers. Kelly joked that there was no amount of concealer to hide how tired she was, and yet she was brimming with the same energy that I had observed in all of the others.
Vanessa told us that Canberra has provided her the opportunity to play a vast arrange of roles in local theatre, including everyone on her bucket list of roles to play. She has been Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Rizzo in Grease, Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray, and Eponine in Les Miserable, just to name a few. She pointed out how most female roles in musical theatre are for a small range of ages (read: young), which is something to be explored in another post.
Chicago, and many of the Philo’s previous shows, was shown at the Erindale Theatre, which is south of the CBD. The Philo used to stage their shows at the Canberra Theatre Centre, but as bigger acts at higher prices started being staged there, they were pushed out of the Theatre along with other local, amateur theatre companies.
The show itself was absolutely fantastic and I am happy to say that I still have the songs playing over and over in my head. Chicago is one of my favourite musicals and I saw a production of it in Melbourne in 2009 when Caroline O’Connor played Velma. The Philo’s production was just as good – if not better for having the bandstand on stage and interacting with the show, and a huge and phenomenal cast bringing high energy and just a really, really good performance. The sets and use of space were clever and they dazzled us with aerial performances and brilliant choreography.
I encourage you to support your local theatre – by attending shows and even getting involved, if that interests you. By supporting local theatre, you are not only contributing to future shows for you to see, you are also helping to create opportunities for people in your community to do what they love and to try new things.
The Philo will put on another show in October and we are waiting
impatiently for the announcement of what the show will be. Like their Facebook page to see the announcement.