Chicago – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Walter Bobbie
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Imagine a world in which the usual rules are turned on their head, in which ordinary people can be catapulted to celebrity status for, at best, dubious reasons, in which the masses are in thrall to the cult of celebrity thanks to the manipulation of the media and its kiss-and-tell exposés, in which style always triumphs over substance. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is the world of Chicago in the Roaring 1920s, a lawless time and one in which, it would seem, the jails were full of women accused of murder.

Velma is a vaudeville singer who murders her husband and sister; Roxie is a chorus girl who murders her lover when he tries to end the relationship. Both are arrested and become celebrities from jail under the wing of celebrity lawyer, Billy Flynn and his manipulation of the press and ultimately the courts. Along the way, there is jealousy and fear as the girls learn that fame can be both fleeting and fickle and they do their utmost to restore their fading stars to glory before their court appearances and subsequently as they try to ride their fame.

One word that sums up Chicago is style. It is presented through a series of vaudeville songs, each presented in the style of different vaudevillians and introduced by cast members. The lighting is harsh and monochromatic, the costumes brief and sexy. And the whole is choreographed by Ann Reinking in the unmistakeable style of Bob Fosse, with hats, turned in elbows and angles everywhere. But while the Chicago depicted may lack depth, there is plenty of it in Chicago, a biting satire. Velma and Roxie are depicted as scheming criminals, Flynn as an egotistical performer. We see occasional glimpses of humanity, the reporter Mary Sunshine who is determined to see A Little Bit of Good in everyone, and in Roxie’s weak but loyal and loving husband, Amos, who funds her defence from Flynn.

Indeed, the nature of the show’s construction means that there is limited scope for character development and so many are deliberately two-dimensional and unsympathetic. The exception is Amos, played for pathos by Neil Ditt. His conflicting emotions as he is used by Flynn are clear and his performance of Mister Cellophane is moving. John Partridge’s Flynn is deliciously shallow and self-serving as he presents himself as one providing a service out of love while not being above manipulation and dirty tricks – a triumph. Sophie Carmen-Jones is brash as Velma, maintaining her front throughout and stealing the scenes she is in. Her desperation as her star fades and she tries to hitch a ride on Roxie’s coat tails in I Can’t Do It Alone is a comic masterpiece, while Class, a song bemoaning the lack of class in their world is sung beautifully and without irony by Roxie and ebullient jailer, Mama Morton (Mica Paris). Hayley Tamaddon’s Roxie is maybe a little understated though her delight as she becomes the media’s darling as well as the inevitable swift fall are well documented and clear in the closing numbers with Carmen-Jones. Mama Morton needs a big performance from a big voice and Paris certainly delivers. The subtlety of her relationship with her girls is maybe a little lost in the irony, however.

The construction of the narrative arc through episodic songs, the minimalist set and lighting, and the heavily stylised choreography all go together to provide an evening of entertainment with a hint of discomfort at the cult of celebrity it satirises. While Chicago and its story may not be to everyone’s taste, it is certainly a theatrical showpiece and full of entertainment value.

Runs until 31 December 2016 | Image: Catherine Ashmore

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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