Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Music: John Kander
Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Director: Walter Bobbie
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
Chicago. The late 1920s. A city overrun with waist-coated gangsters, sleazy lawyers, and dolled-up dancing girls in short, sparkling dresses. A city in which every guy speaks out of the corner of his mouth and all the women blow seductive kisses at the end of every sentence. A city defined – to those who have never been there – by the charming Billy Flynn, the enigmatic Velma Kelly, and the dangerous Roxie Hart. There’s no two ways about it; Fred Ebb, John Kander and Bob Fosse’s Chicago is a stone cold classic.
Now, Broadway’s long-running Tony Award-winning production of Chicago has cloned itself and embarked on a UK tour at Oxford’s New Theatre. The show has unashamedly made a big deal of its star casting and, although puddle-deep in terms of emotional content, its collection of television personalities and West End performers bring enough razzle-dazzle to leave most of the audience satisfied. It is just as one would imagine: stripped back, stylish and sexy.
John Partridge, best known for a five-year stint on EastEnders, takes on the role of Billy, the tuxedo-clad advocate who takes on the defence of good-looking murderesses, giving them five minutes of glamorous fame and earning himself a hefty pay check at the same time. Roxie (Hayley Tamaddon – Emmerdale and Dancing On Ice) and Velma (Sophie Carmen-Jones) are two of his high-profile clients, wannabee showgirls covered with the sinister sexiness of murder. X Factor winner Sam Bailey also makes an appearance as ‘Mama’ Morton, the prison warden-cum-agent of murderess row.
The familiar story and familiar show tunes are briskly rolled out, all with the right amounts of suggestive huskiness and provocative looks. Partridge sprints through We Both Reached For The Gun with delectable polish, Carmen-Jones is enjoyably vivacious in When Velma Takes The Stand, and Neil Ditt’s remorseful Mr Cellophane as Amos, Roxie’s trampled-on husband, is another highlight. Bailey, welcomed to the stage like a returning veteran, is perfectly hard-nosed and her numbers go down exceptionally well.
Whatever happened to class? wails Carmen-Jones’ Velma. In this show, the class is all in the choreography. A skimpily dressed chorus cling to the leads as they drawl out their lyrics, before whirling away in a flurry of sequins. It is a little repetitive after 90 minutes or so but when at its most extravagant – as it is during All I Care Aboutwhen Partridge’s Billy is surrounded by a twirling halo of white feathers – it is mesmerising.
The show’s design is emphatically simple, with the band entirely visible behind a featureless stage, onto which a set of plain wooden chairs are dragged to serve as a set. In the famous courtroom scene, a row of bright spotlights glare out into the audience and a faded American flag limply unfurls above proceedings. It is stark, striking and provides the perfect platform for all the whirling and twirling.
There is not much to get your teeth into, but that is to be expected of a musical that has changed little since its revival back in 1996. Chicago is entirely predictable, but always entertaining if nothing else.
Runs until 20 February 2016 | Image: Catherine Ashmore