Phoenix Theatre, London – until 6 October 2018
Returning to London after some years, Chicago proves why it is one of the longest ever running revivals to still be playing on Broadway. Kander and Ebb’s genius lies in focusing on complex, troubling aspects of humanity and viewing them through the prism of satirical musical theatre.
But where their other works (say Cabaret or The Scottsboro Boys) have an underlying horror that rightly pricks our consciences, Chicago’s guilty pleasure is that much of its satire proves to be deliciously enjoyable.
The action mainly plays out in Illinois’ Cook County jail where female felon Velma Kelly (who had murdered her husband and his lover as they were caught in-flagrante) finds herself joined by new inmate Roxie Hart (who had shot her lover as he walked out on her). In their quest for liberty rather than the gallows, both women hire celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn to fight their case. Flynn in turn, much like a modern-day Mark Anthony (or should that be Max Clifford?) seeks to play to the public’s emotions and outcries by garnering as much press coverage as he can for his sensational clients in the hope of achieving their acquittal.
Over the years, and on both sides of the Atlantic, Chicago’s producers have acquired a reputation for parachuting celebrities into leading roles, with little regard to their song or dance expertise, but rather with an eye on their ability to bring a different star quality to the show, as well as to get bums on seats. So it is here, with Hollywood leading man (and Oscar winner) Cuba Gooding Jr making his West End debut as Billy Flynn. While Gooding Jr may not have the finest voice, he delivers impact, presence and above all credibility to the smooth-talking shyster he portrays. The wicked twinkle that he brings to Flynn more than justifies the producers’ gamble in hiring him.
Elsewhere, however, there is musical theatre excellence as Josefina Gabrielle brings a sultry wisdom, alongside a vocal and physical athleticism to Velma. A veteran of the London show from the last time around (where she played Roxie), hers is an assured, delightful interpretation. Also back in the London show, Sarah Soetaert reprises her Roxie Hart in a solid performance that doesn’t disappoint.
The eye-opening casting, aside from Cuba Gooding Jnr., is Ruthie Henshall who completes a personal hat-trick with the show by playing jailer Mamma Morton. Seasons past have seen Henshall not only play Velma, but also be London’s first ever Roxie when Chicago opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 1997. Henshall may not have quite the burlesque/statuesque presence that When You’re Good to Mamma demands, but her vocals are unsurpassed. She and Gabrielle make the duet Class, class.
There’s fun stuff too from Paul Rider as the ineptly cuckolded Amos Hart, jazz-handedly delivering Mister Cellophane to one of the evening’s loudest cheers.
Choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, this staging which is now into its third decade, speaks of a world that is highly sexually charged. The costumes are provocative with both men and women (aside from the two male leads)scantily clad, in outfits outlining provocative sexuality. Recent months of course have seen sexual politics being radically re-evaluated, and against that backdrop it is interesting to consider Chicago’s own distinct stance on the matter. Kelly, Hart and Flynn understand the power of sex, while the Cell Block Tango number is a celebration of women who (for the most part) have exacted righteous retribution on the disappointing or treacherous men in their life. It’s a complex argument for sure but at least within its on-stage iteration, Chicago’s women are victors rather than victims.
Chicago remains fine Fosseian musical theatre. Strong story, stylish dance, and Kander & Ebb’s brilliant songs. Class, indeed.
Booking until 6th OctoberPhoto credit: Tristram Kenton