Edinburgh Playhouse – until 18 June 2016
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Those merry murderesses are back for a Chicago that isn’t perfect but definitely doesn’t deserve the death sentence.
The musical Chicago is based on a Twenties stage show of the same name, but it’s skewering of ‘celebrity criminals’ makes its story as relevant today as ever it was. Mind, audiences don’t come for relevancy, they come for the songs of Kander & Ebb, the choreography of Bob Fosse and the star performances.
In this case, the stars above the Playhouse door are Hayley Tamaddon – formerly of Emmerdale, but for our purposes a cracking Lady in the Lake in a Spamalot that hit the capital a while back. There’s John Partridge, best known for EastEnders but a man with an enviable musicals CV. And there’s Sam Bailey, who won the X Factor in 2013 with a massive public vote.
The star who should be sharing the billing is Sophie Carmen-Jones, an up and comer who plays Velma Kelly, one of Chicago’s two big female roles, but without TV recognition, no chance. Happily, in the show itself, the superb Carmen-Jones – and how’s that for an example of nominative determinism, please let it be real – gets the respect she deserves, taking her final bows with Tamaddon.
Tarmaddon plays Roxie Hart, tossed into the Prohibition penal system when her lover is inconveniently found in a pool of blood. Husband Amos stands by her, believing her story that victim Fred was a burglar. In prison, Roxie meets Velma Kelly, who killed her own sister – with whom she had a Vaudeville contortionist act – and husband over the little matter of an affair. Under the tutelage of wily prison warden Mama Morton, Velma’s been playing a scandalous game, using flashy lawyer Billy Flynn to, hopefully, get her pots of publicity and win her freedom. Then she plans to parlay her notoriety into a new, bigger act.
When Roxie arrives at the Big House, with a fresher, juicier crime and steals the lawyer, well, enough sparks fly to rival any electric chair…
Chicago is unusual among big stage musicals in that it’s mounted as an intimate cabaret show, with no sets unless you count the on-stage band box. Given the Playhouse is one of the UK’s biggest theatres, intimacy doesn’t come easy – it’s up to the performers to draw us in. And draw us in they do – well, the traditional tiny outfits, with sheer panels and bare chests aplenty (men-only!) help, but it’s the quality of performances that make this a show worth seeing.
Tamaddon is a wee firecracker, a pocket rocket of terrific talent and twinkly attitude. She has a rich, adaptable voice that was shown to good effect in Funny Honey and Me and My Baby, while her final duet with Carmen-Jones, Nowadays, is a delight.
Their contrasting heights make them a fun pairing, visually, but Carmen-Jones is the perfect partner-in-crime all round. Her liquid moves in opener All That Jazz are hypnotic, while her honeyed tones are displayed especially well on the brilliantly ironic Class, a duet with Sam Bailey’s Mama Morton – kudos to vocal arranger Rob Fisher for that one, especially.
Bailey is a revelation. As the girls in Gypsy said, you gotta have a gimmick, and on the X Factor her hook was that this knockout singer worked in a prison. So having her play the money-grabbing matron is shameless stunt casting. As it turns out, it’s a small stroke of genius. Her controlled melancholy in Class really helped sell the song, while traditional barnstormer When You’re Good To Mama brings the prison walls down.
charm for half of Ireland
The only lead with whom there is any real problem is Partridge. I’ve seen him on many a TV show, he’s a fantastic dancer, has a decent singing voice and enough charm for half of Ireland. And Billy Flynn is a role built on charm. Sadly, Partridge brings out the Mephistophelean side of the showbiz shyster while downplaying the charisma.
John Partridge and Ensemble. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
He works so hard at give a convincing accent – Southern, I’d venture – that his diction suffers; often it is tough to make out his words, a rushed delivery not helping. His introductory number, All I Care About is Love, is especially problematic, though he is better in the showstopping We Both Reached For the Gun, as Tamaddon becomes his literal puppet. Razzle Dazzle does give him a chance to show off his hoofing, and boy, can he hold a note. If he slows down a tad, the performance likely will dazzle – Partridge certainly has the goods.
Neil Ditt makes Amos adorable, especially in his showcase number Mister Cellophane, a sad ditty that builds to Al Jolson proportions, and he delivers one of the best exit lines in musical theatre with appropriate relish. The excellent AD Richardson displays a magnificent soprano, high enough to alarm dogs city-wide, as sensationalist hack Mary Sunshine. And Francis Foreman’s playing out of Fred’s murder as Roxie lies her face off in court showed a true gift for physical comedy.
Most of the time, Foreman is in the ensemble, whose members are a massive part of the show. From the girls who join Velma in the super-sexy and delightfully cynical Cell Block Tango (that’s the one with the refrain, ‘He had it coming’) to the boys who manage to play cops, judges and reporters while clad, barely, in fetish gear, they’re really rather fantastic.
Even the members of the tight orchestra got to be mildly lewd, tossing themselves around with abandon as they play like devils in the Act Two Entr’acte. Musical director Ben Atkinson wins big applause for throwing himself backwards over his stand…
The classic Chicago choreography, by Fosse and Ann Reinking, is pretty much untouchable, but Gary Chryst gets to tweak it as necessary for David Ian’s production and is obviously doing something right – the energy on stage could light the theatre. Maybe it did. Walter Bobbie directed the Nineties New York revival of which this is a version, so let’s give a shout-out to Tania Nardini, associate director of this tour, for a very together production.
Do Velma and Roxie get away with their crimes? Finding that out is sinfully enjoyable.
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes (including interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Monday 13 – Saturday 18 June 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Full details and tickets on the Playhouse website: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/chicago-2016/edinburgh-playhouse/
Chicago on tour 2016:
Mon 13 – Sat 18 Jun
0844 871 3014
Mon 20 – Sat 25 June
The Grand Theatre
Mon 27 June – Sat 2 Jul
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Theatre Royal Plymouth
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Wales Millennium Centre
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Mon 1st – Sat 13th Aug
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Grand Opera House
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His Majesty’s Theatre
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New Victoria Theatre
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Mon 24 – Sat 29 Oct
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Mon 28 Nov – Sat 3 Dec
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Mon 12 – Sat 31 Dec
New Alexandra Theatre
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