The Prohibition era was not necessarily the shiniest of moments in American history. Bootlegging, speakeasies and organised crime all increased during the nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages that ran from 1920 to 1933. Stil, there is one bright spot, and that is that without prohibition, we would never have had the John Kander and Fred Ebb’s wonderful musical Chicago which has recently been revived at the Phoenix Theatre.
Chicago is the story of the pursuit and fragility of fame as we follow the story of two notorious women accused of murder. Vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle) is charged with murdering her sister and husband and Roxie Hart (Sarah Soetaert) facing trial for the murder of her lover Fred Casely (Chris Warren Drake). Roxie is terrified but the matron of the jail “Mama” Morton (Ruthie Henshall) recommends she gets the best lawyer in town Billy Flynn (Cuba Gooding Jr) – who is also defending Velma – to defend her. Roxie’s husband Amos (Paul Rider) tries to raise the money to hire Billy whose approach to defending is unconventional – especially when he has a photogenic client – and he strives hard to ensure that the truth doesn’t get too far in the way of his own interpretation of justice.
So, the first thing to say about this production of Chicago is to forget the movie. Put it completely out of your mind and close the door. They are completely different and should not be compared. So, take your seat, sit back and enjoy the experience of the original. The story itself is still as relevant today as when it was first performed back in 1975. We see it every Saturday night on our TV as another wannabe talks about performing in memory of their dead relative or pet hamster. This story really brings home the fickleness of celebrity as the press pack led by veteran reporter Mary Sunshine (A D Richardson) swing between Velma, Roxie and various other notorious women to sell their papers.
Set in the 1920s the production is a mixture of styles. Director Walter Bobbie and Choreographer Ann Reinking have tried to stay as close to the original production in staging as possible – indeed there is even some of Bob Fosse’s original choreography (delightfully re-created by Gary Chryst) in the production. The set by John Lee Beatty is very basic, a large raked podium holding Musical Director Ian Townsend and his 13 piece jazz orchestra, with seats around the edge that are occupied by members of the ensemble cast when they are not performing. The cast are dressed by costume designer William Ivy Long in various varieties of black ‘stage’ costumes. To be honest, there is quite a bit of well-toned flesh on display – particularly with the male performers – which when joined with the hip and arm movements of the choreography really adds to the unexpected sensuality of the entire show. The other surprising thing for me was the amount of humour, this is particularly true in ‘Cell Block Tango’ where six women describe how they murdered their partners but do so in such a way that you can’t help but laugh along with them.
Let’s look at performances and both the lead actresses are fabulous in the roles. Josefina’s Velma is a tough hard-bitten professional who knows what she wants and how to get it. Sarah’s Roxie, on the other hand, is a simpering blonde, happy to flirt with anyone to progress but who really doesn’t understand the realities of the life she is aiming for. Ruthie Henshall produces a great vocal performance as ‘Mama’ Morton but, to me, looked too young and attractive to be such a cynical player of the system. Cuba Gooding Jr brings a touch of star quality to the role of Billy Flynn. If I’m honest, I didn’t think Cuba’s singing voice was brilliant but he is very engaging and has a real magnetism that dominates the stage, in exactly the same way Billy dominates his courtroom. And finally, Paul Rider who is absolutely perfect as Roxie’s downtrodden, whipped husband Amos. There is a really wonderful vulnerability to Paul portrayal of one of life’s ultimate losers that almost breaks your heart – especially during the iconic and show-stealing rendition of ‘Mr Cellophane’. I can’t leave this section without mentioning the rest of the ensemble cast who not only look amazing but work extremely hard to play just about everyone else, and provide hot sexually charged dancing, with a real style and class.
My final thoughts on Chicago. I really enjoyed the overall show, which is extremely well put together and performed by a first-rate cast. It’s difficult to put my finger on what it was, but it felt like there was something missing in the production to raise it from just being a great show to being the spectacular production I was looking forward to seeing. I’m not saying I left the theatre disappointed, just not quite as satisfied as I expected. Having said that though, Chicago is highly entertaining and enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a great night out.
Review by Terry Eastham
Chicago is bringing the real razzle-dazzle back to London! Winner of six Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy the sexiest, sassiest, most sophisticated Broadway musical in history is celebrating 21 years of standing ovations in style.
The dazzling multi-award-winning tale of nightclub singer Roxie Hart, her cell-block rival Velma Kelly and the smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn has thrilled audiences in London, Broadway and across the world from Mexico City to Moscow, from Sao Paulo to South Africa since 1996.
With the original Broadway choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse and a sizzling score featuring the classic songs “Razzle Dazzle”, “Cell Block Tango” and “All That Jazz”, Chicago is so good it should be illegal.
Starring Academy Award-Winner Cuba Gooding Jnr as Billy Flynn, Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Hart, Josefina Gabrielle as Velma Kelly, Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton and Paul Rider as Amos Hart.
Don’t miss out, book now. It’d be a crime to miss it…
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