Chicago – Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton

Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Walter Bobbie
Reviewer: Nicole Evans

Starting life as a play written by a mature student’s experiences as a big-shot lawyer, Kander and Ebb’s Chicago has been marking its criminal territory on stages worldwide for over 40 years and shows no sign of locking itself away. Portraying the exploits of a group of jailers all being threatened with conviction for the murder of their beloveds, it is well renowned for its skimpy costumes, internationally recognised numbers and characters we hate to love. Tonight sees the 2016 tour head to Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, albeit, as we are informed just prior to curtain up, without their billed leading lady Hayley Tamaddon.

The orchestra gets straight on with doing their bit to warm us, and the cast, up and it is quickly apparent they are enjoying every second of being centre-stage on the familiar simple, unchanging set. Their enthusiasm doesn’t cease and it’s fair to say they are the true stars of the show, perfecting the score with not a beat, strum or blow out of place.

After the pleasing introduction and outstanding first number, it’s soon time to meet Roxy Hart, with Lindsey Siveter taking on the thankless task of wowing the press on opening night in Tamaddon’s absence. Seemingly a little on the stiff side at first, she is soon lost in her performance and sass and sex appeal take over. She remains unfazed and holds her own throughout and, despite some disappointment from the crowd at the presence of an understudy, more than proves her worth as top-of-the-bill. Standing her ground among the well-known TV stars as Velma Kelly is Sophie Carmen-Jones. With Velma being the recognised character she is, and her shoes having been filled by some pretty big feet previously, she has her work cut out to impress from the outset; she doesn’t disappoint. It’s a struggle to believe even a die-hard Chicago fan could fail to love her slick shimmies, sultry glances and roof-high kicks, not to mention the near-perfect vocals and rapport with her fellow cast members. Her rendition of Class with Mama Morton, played by Sam Bailey – whose performance, once you eventually warm to her, makes you wonder why she needed X-Factor, was particularly memorable and she succeeds in charming the pants off her crowd.

This tour of Chicago can’t possibly be reviewed without a mention of John Partridge. An easy game of spot the soap fans ensues as the auditorium is filled with screams when Billy Flynn first enters the stage, accompanied by a few head shakes from those of us who are a little more doubtful of his ability to tackle such a role. While his voice surpasses expectation, there is an element of sparkle missing from his performance overall that you can’t quite place and he just doesn’t find a way into our hearts as his character should.

It isn’t often that a member of the ensemble outshines the lead roles but Frances Dee does just that. Starring as both Hunyak, the ‘innocent’ Hungarian, and as a group company dancer throughout, her unfaltering seductive expressions and athletic feats effortlessly draw our attentions away from centre-stage from start to finish.

With little scope to adapt the plot or staging, the key to Chicago’s long term success relies heavily on the cast giving it their all. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it feels a little like the producers played it safe and opted for celebrity status over pure talent and the production, with a few exceptions, is simply missing that extra special Razzle Dazzle we’ve come to expect. Tonight, these jazz hands can sadly only offer light applause.

Runs until 28 May 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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