Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Music: John Kander
Book: Fred Ebb &Bob Fosse
Choreography: Ann Reinking, Gary Chryst
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
The 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago – which opened in the West End in 1997 – has proved to have longer legs than the original 1975 production. Maybe its narrative of empty celebrity and fame for fame’s sake plays more strongly in the modern era, giving the show more resonance than simply its setting and tale of murderesses and flawed legal systems in 1920s Chicago.
This version of the show is now 20 years old and has seen a procession of musical, film, TV, reality and soap stars strut their way through the lead roles. And this incarnation is no exception. Chicago is a compact show rich with leading roles, big and small. The black and gold production design still looks sharp and impressive. Although the large on-stage structure that houses the band – who are excellent – and conceals and reveals the main star entrance and exit and lifts, takes up much of the dance space, leaving some numbers looking constricted, notably the opening number All That Jazz.
The opening number actually seems low in energy creating a worrying sense that this show has become tired, but that rapidly dissipates and by Cell Block Tango momentum is growing, which doesn’t flag through a musical show that, frankly, doesn’t have a weak song.
So, the star cast: Hayley Tamaddon is arguably punching slightly above her weight as Roxie Hart but her voice is strong and her characterisation bright and sparky, making her character – who is a pretty awful person – as likeable as she needs to be as the heroine in this darkly twisted world of misplaced celebrity.
John Partridge, who has a wealth of pre-EastEnders musical theatre experience, is effective as criminal lawyer Billy Flynn, although his performance has perhaps too much of a nod to Richard Gere in the Oscar-winning 2002 film version. The staging for All I Care Aboutis still lovely and We Both Reached for the Gun is a real highlight.
Former X-Factorwinner Sam Bailey does an appealing job with Mama Morton, even if she is clutching her American accent quite tightly. Her characterisation is big, amiable and reminiscent of Hollywood character actresses from musicals of the 30s and 40s. Her voice is excellent, and it’s a shame almost that Mama Morton only has one song and a duet. Her version of When You’re Good to Mamais subtly gutsy and detailed, and Class, the duet with Velma Kelly, is just that.
Sophie Carmen-Jones, starring as the hard and hard-to-like Velma Kelly, seems a little under-powered in the first act but seems to have her sound (or head mic) adjusted in the interval and powers through the second act, growing in stature and impact.
The two smaller feature roles – Neil Ditt as Roxie’s down-trodden husband Amos and A D Richardson as court reporter Mary Sunshine – have great impact in the right hands and they do here. Ditt’s Mister Cellophane’and Richardson’s A Little Bit of Good are both wonderfully sung and acted.
There are minor issues perhaps. Original Roxie, Anne Reinking’s Fosse-drenched choreography is still incredibly distinctive but 20 years more familiar as pop culture has raided the Fosse canon ceaselessly. The sexiness of William Ivey Long’s costumes is perhaps less shocking than it once wasbut still looks pretty great. There are a number of small speaking roles as the chorus and Mama Morton pick up the role of the MC to add detail and colour and some of these lack power and there are some wobbly American accents, but generally, the chorus is strong both vocally and choreographically, with some distinctive individuals peppering the scenes to enhance a show that is incredibly watchable.
Chicago is one the great authentic musicals by one of the best creative teams – Chicago and Cabaret are a pretty impressive twin achievement for Kander and Ebb. This production is two-decades-old but still delights. The fast-paced, easy-to-follow narrative and strong characters – and all those great songs – still makes for a very fun, striking, exciting night of musical theatre, as it can and should be done.
Runs until 2 April 2016 | Image:Catherine Ashmore