CentralDramaMusicalReview

Chicago – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse

Music: John Kander

Lyrics: Fred Ebb

Chicago in the 1920s was a pretty lawless place, it would seem, with the mob running things. Around the same time, cabaret singer Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were both tried and acquitted of murder, largely thanks to their defence counsels. Yes, in Chicago, a pretty face could, quite literally get away with murder. Nearly a century since those events, it’s hard to believe that a combination of money, cunning, barefaced lies and a largely sympathetic press could serve to make powerful celebrities out of law-breaking scoundrels. Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart are barely disguised versions of Gaertner and Annan, with Billy Flynn their smooth-talking counsel.

Velma caught her husband and sister in flagrante delicto. She claims not to recall what happened next, but they ended up dead with Velma covered in blood. Velma is top dog in Cook County jail as she awaits her trial having hired celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn to represent her interests and come up with some sort of defence. Her nose is pushed severely out of joint when Roxie Hart appears having shot her lover and tried to get her husband, Amos, to take the rap. But even Roxie’s stint in the limelight looks set to be limited until she makes a startling announcement.

The original production was choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. The later revivals had new choreography in his style from Ann Reinking and everything about Chicago is stylish. The staging is minimal, with the band centre stage. Costumes similarly are black and minimal and the lighting, designed by Ken Billington is harsh and monochromatic. The whole is designed to transport us to a vaudeville hall with each song delivered in the style of distinct vaudevillians. To make it seem even more like such a show, the MC (Andrew Hilton) and members of the ensemble announce many of the numbers to the audience.

Djalenga Scott brings us Velma’s journey, from darling of the newspapers to also-ran: she shows great depth of characterisation as Velma sees her world crack before her when Roxie (Faye Brookes) appears on the scene. Her breathless attempt to engage Roxie in her vaudeville act, I Can’t Do It Alone, shows her desperation at that point. Roxie’s journey goes in the opposite direction: always scheming but with an undercurrent of naivety, we see her confidence grow in Brookes’ performance as she falls under Flynn’s Svengali-like spell, parroting his story as a ventriloquist’s doll in We Both Reached for the Gun. B E Wong’s turn as ‘sob-sister’ journalist, Mary Sunshine does, indeed bring sunshine into proceedings, especially in the showstopper song, A Little Bit of Good.

Darren Day brings a veneer of smoothness to Flynn, a veneer covering the steely mercenary underneath. One can see why juries might be swayed by his inventions, especially faced with a tearful pretty face.

Joel Montague is entirely believable as invisible doormat, Amos, Roxie’s put-upon husband. Montague ensures that Amos consistently wears his heart on his sleeve, blindly loving Roxie despite all she throws at him. Sinitta Malone plays Mama Morton, the matron of Cook County jail who is happy to ‘help’ prisoners in return for bribes. While Sinitta, in common with the rest of the cast, has a terrific singing voice, as demonstrated in When You’re Good to Mama, and plenty of empathy in Class, she generally lacks the undercurrent of menace required for this role.

Chicago is a great satire on the fleeting nature of celebrity and the manipulation of the public consciousness.  Time and again, the choreography presents striking visual moments supported by the iconic score and performances. Indeed, music, direction, choreography, staging and showstopper after showstopper all combine harmoniously to make the perfect storm of a musical. But this is a show with substance as well as style, one with a real story to tell, one that will live in the memory long after the glitter stops sparkling and the houselights come up. While Velma and Mama Morton might regret the passing of Class in Chicago, this musical has it by the bucketful.

Runs until 29 January 2022 and on tour

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The Reviews Hub - Central

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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