Chicago – New Theatre, Oxford

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

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  1. Despite it being a bitterly cold and raining night outside myself and six friends from different points in oxfordshire braved the awful weather to watch one of my favourite musicals. Within fifteen minutes I was being totally underwhelmed by mediocre choreographing, a set design that you could see in any secondary school drama room and vocals (especially from the two leading ladies), that missed a lot of the top notes needed to drive the excitement forward. The production lacked any of the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Chicago ( and previous productions), but worst still was the lack of real storyline to tie it all together. I could have sat at home to listen to the soundtrack. On the upside the band are brilliant and if it wasn’t for the band and their obvious musical skill I would not have know I was watching Chcago. Totally disappointing, definitely the budget version of this much loved musical with high end priced tickets! One star.

  2. Tara – you clearly went to a different show to me. Thoroughly enjoyable and I’ve seen it 6 times in the West End; equally comparable.

    Musicians faultless and plenty of colour and excitement in the vocals alongside the stern gravel required in some numbers.

    Choreography is both classy, staccato and true to the original.

  3. I’m sorry Ted but you clearly got lost in your Chicago bubble! I completely agree with Tara after seeing the lack lustre performance tonight…..all in all,I can’t fault the performers themselves,they have a very limited stage on which to showcase their talent…a complete lack of set made it impossible to know it was even set in a prison and with little dialogue made the storyline ( or lack of it) hard to follow…both my husband and I left feeling underwhelmed and hugely disappointed in what was to be a great night out.
    Overall the worst stage production I’ve ever seen,save your money and stay at home!


  4. I completely agree with Tara and Rachel having never seen Chicago before I found this story very hard to follow. The main characters were excellant and performed really well, but due to lack of set and story we found this very disappointing and left at the interval feeling very disappointed. I agree it was our worst stage production we have ever seen.

  5. I too left at the interval after being totally underwhelmed at the production. Whilst the choreography and musical numbers were performed with aplomb by the aritists, holistically the production lacked the panache and style of a vintage performance. The opening with the band in the background gave the feeling of a nightclub/bar atmosphere, but I was disapointed that this turned out to be the backdrop to every scene. Surely for the jail scenes some iron bars to mimic a cell etc. would be appropriate and within the budget of the production, being as I paid £39.50 for a ticket? I was only able to follow the performance having had the hindsight of knowledge of the plot. Even with that, I found it all too hard to follow at which point in the story we were at. There needed to be more dialogue between the numbers to join it all together. If I was judging this on stand alone muscial numbers then the show was impressive. I just wish the producers had put a little more thought into their execution of the entire musical rather than relying on heavyweight muscial numbers to carry the show through.

  6. But that’s the whole point – the original production was very stripped back too! I agree the production is not as per other “west end” shows – think Wicked and Lion King but Chicago doesnt claim to be like them. It is true to its history; focuses attentioin on the dance and music rather.

    As for the those that walked out at half time – very disrespectful.

  7. I think the problem with this version is that some of the audience don’t know what they are coming to and therefore think that it’s low budget that results in the band taking up so much room and lack of space on a bare set etc. Leicester Curve did an amazing new production of this show a few years back…in colour, large set, jail bars, new choreography etc. I’m guessing that they wouldn’t get the licence to take that on tour and imagine that this version on tour is the one protected by all the rights? The touring version though is the same as the West End version that I saw. When we went to see it we didn’t notice anybody walk out and agree that this is disrespectful to performers.

  8. Dear all,
    Thank you to contributing to my discussion. I feel that a healthy debate has been opened up, and whilst I don’t agree with all points that have been made, I respect everyone’s opinions. Regarding those who chose to leave the show at the interval, I don’t feel it’s disresespectful – you’ve paid for tickets, your unhappy it is your right to leave, theatre goers for hundreds of years have shown their displeasure in the same way.
    We can agree that the musicians were brilliant and maybe when Chicago comes back to our little Oxford theatre it maybe more like the one that Lizzy saw in Leicester – which I feel would suit more tastes and disappoint less people. On the upside I’m off to watch Carmen tonight and hope to be swept off my feet!

    Thank you for all contributions so far


  9. I too was underwhelmed. The song ‘They both reached for the gun’ was left out. I can’t put my finger on it but something was definitely missing.

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