Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
Director: Walter Bobbie
Writer: Maurine Dallas Watkins
Adaptor: David Thompson
Choreographer: Ann Reinking
Reviewer: Hannah Stamp
With a dimly lit stage, a cloud of smoke smothering the spotlight and a seductive array of black clinging costumes, Chicago sizzles like the stage of an underground burlesque club. With just enough humour to offset what could have been a sombre and serious tale of a group of unlikeable women on death row, this production of the well-known musical infuses some much-needed fun and excitement into the story.
The fame hungry Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly use their positions as murderers of ex-lovers and husbands to attract themselves fame and public adoration. Their obsession with gaining overnight success at the expense of their morality, while the media lovingly laps up their lies, is hauntingly familiar of the way our culture dissects celebrity life for the pleasure of a social media-driven public. This hints at the enduring success of the decades-old musical and our love of returning to new versions of it. Never easy to ask an audience to root for flawed heroines doubling as murderers, both Sophie Carmen-Jones and Hayley Tamaddon manage to make Velma and Roxie relatable and endearing with their playful dance routines and love/hate relationship.
The standout highlight of the musical, however, is the fantastic orchestra directed to perfection by Ben Atkinson. It’s always refreshing to actually see the musicians on stage, in view of the audience and taking full credit for what can sometimes be an overlooked talent. Making full use of props, facial expressions and even their music stands, they made sure all eyes were on them as they played their instruments, but also generated endless energy, surprises and musical gags. Able to dominate the stage without the aid of actors or dancers, they delivered a musical feast and made leaving the theatre as the lights came up a unique exit.
The only negative aspect of being able to so fully enjoy the orchestra was the lack of opportunity this created for stage and scene changes. Some alternative backgrounds, sets and props were sacrificed for one continuous layout to accommodate the musicians. while this was by no means unattractive to look at, it could grow dull for those wanting some fresh colour and excitement to draw the eye. This was emphasised even more strongly by the darker lighting and uniform black costumes that also remained unchanging. Classic and stylish, the little black dresses certainly add to the allure the death row women want to promote, but they also lack variation too.
The little space that is left on stage, however, has been made fine use of by the excellent dancers who, when performing as a group, seem to move fluidly and inventively in what is effectively a limited area. With touches of humour and silliness, they complimented the lead actors well throughout their musical numbers. Uniquely, they also remain seated on stage throughout the performance, requiring them to continuously remain in character.
With everything you would expect from a glossy musical number, this production of Chicago delivers effortless style. With the added bonus of some light moments mixed into the darkness, and a particularly spectacular long, high note from John Partridge’s Billy Flynn, there are plenty of impressive musical moments to offset the lack of impressive visual moments. Overall, a strong production to thrill any musical lover.
Runs until 23July 2016 then tour continues | Image: Catherine Ashmore