Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book: Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb
Director: Walter Bobbie
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
You can’t keep a good show down! Chicago, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, was a moderate success in New York and London in the late 1970s, but it is the 1996 revival, directed by Walter Robbie, that defines it. That production has run continuously on Broadway for over 20 years and it also ran in the West End, in three theatres, from 1997 until it seemed to have run out of steam in 2012. Now Bobbie’s production rises again, appropriately at the Phoenix Theatre and the air is once more filled with toe-tapping tunes and raging amorality.
This is a prime example of a Kander and Ebb trademark, that of framing a musical with a specific entertainment style. They gave us a Berlin nightclub for Cabaret, a minstrel show for The Scottsboro Boys and, in this case, we find ourselves landed in Vaudeville at the height of the Jazz Age. One of the explanations for the show’s longevity could be the simplicity of it’s staging – a single set, with orchestra in the middle, serves all needs – and another could be the ease with which star names can be slotted into any of the leading roles to reinvigorate it repeatedly. Yes, Chicago, is a show that can sometimes fall victim to flawed stunt casting.
The biggest name blazoned across the posters here is that of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr, a larger-than-life personality who turns out to be unexpectedly subdued as the dodgy lawyer Billy Flynn. A singing voice with a limited range does not necessarily spell disaster for an actor in a musical, but the Hollywood star’s two big numbers, All I Care About and Razzle Dazzle make little impression and, overall, we really want him to harness the natural ebullience for which he is famed a lot more and burst out of his role.
Elsewhere, the show is still razzle dazzling in most of the right places, with too many great songs packed in to leave room for any boring bits. Sarah Soetaert’s bubbly peroxide blonde Roxie Hart and Josefina Gabrielle’s sultry brunette Velma Kelly are spot-on. Both murderers awaiting trial, they quickly realise that, when the justice system and showbiz go head-to-head, showbiz will win and they scheme to use their notoriety to advance their careers on stage. Incredibly, the book by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb is based on real-life events in 1920s Chicago.
Ruthie Henshall has played both Roxie and Velma in the West End and she now completes a personal hat-trick by taking on the role of the prison matron Mama Morton, lending her strong presence to the lady that can fix anything, at a price. Paul Rider gives comic pathos to “Mr Cellophane”, Roxie’s cuckolded husband Amos and AD Richardson threatens to shatter glass as the goody-goody Mary Sunshine.
Stacey Haynes is the Resident Director, charged with bringing back to life Bobbie’s production and Ann Reinking’s choreography (in the style of Fosse). Combining Kander’s musical mastery and Ebb’s witty, cynical lyrics with glitzy glamour and high-kicking dancing, Chicago remains hard to resist, however often it reappears on stage or screen and it looks set for another successful run here.
Currently booking until 6 October 2018 | Image: Tristram Kenton