Chicago – The Musical

Written by:
Mark Jennett
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Walter Bobbie’s revival of Fred Ebb and John Kander’s Chicago (seen by your reviewer in London in January) is, seemingly, unstoppable. Productions are opening the world over to ecstatic reviews and the London mounting, which had its first performance in November 1997, is no exception.

The success of the production, aside from the undoubted quality of the material, lies in its simplicity. With little plot to begin with, and minimal set and costumes, the leading roles can be played by almost any triple threat performer with the star power to pull them off. The great risk is that, without sufficient charisma at the helm, what is essentially an augmented concert staging might become less than inspiring. Fortunately, the second British cast is well up to the standard of the Broadway originals and, in one case, a dramatic improvement on their London predecessors.

Principle performances aside, the show still has much to recommend it. The score ranks alongside Cabaret as Ebb and Kander’s finest work. The most casual music theatre fan will recognize at least half the numbers and it even overcomes the potentially fatal step of placing its best (and best known) number – All That Jazz – at the top of the show. Ann Reinking’s choreography ("in the style of Bob Fosse") is sharp, sexy and thrilling. The London band, if anything, exceed their Broadway counterparts in verve and musical director Gareth Valentine should, by rights, also receive billing above the title for his bravura contributions to the evening.

Some of the London dancers lack the sharpness of their Broadway equivalents as well as a little of their killer combination of cynicism and sass. However they supply energy, commitment and attitude aplenty and are more than up to the job. Clarke Peters is tremendous as Billy Flynn, the lawyer hired to defend chorines Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly against charges of murdering various spouses, sisters and boyfriends. Casually sexy, louche and knowing, he is reptilian charm personified. Peter Davison’s Amos is touching and funny and it is good to see Diane Langton back on the West End stage. Matron ‘Mama’ Morton is a million miles away from her star making performance as Petra in A Little Night Music more than two decades ago but her thrilling voice still soars and her impish comic timing remains intact.

As Velma Kelly, Nicola Hughes is sensational. A crimson-lipped Amazon, her long, long legs seemingly poured into twin columns of fishnet, she dances up a storm and belts out her numbers in a voice of molten steel while managing to suggest that she does this sort of thing twice a day before breakfast. Her predecessor in the role, Ute Lemper, may have been more of an original, but Hughes takes the character back to it’s brassy, Rivera-black roots. Bebe Neuwith, on Broadway, had more sheer star power but Hughes outstrips both her rivals in glamour and seemingly unquenchable energy.

Maria Friedman’s Roxie is a delight. More than any other performer in any of the three incarnations of this production I have seen, she illustrates how, with material this strong – and sufficient talent – you can play it almost any way and the show will work. Previously known as London’s premier Sondheim interpreter – she won a Best Actress Olivier Award for her Fosca in Passion and a nomination for Dot in Sunday in the Park With George – she was not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for the role of an all-dancing, lingerie clad murderess. She confounds all doubters with a performance which leaves predecessor Ruthie Henshall’s mannered and ingratiating turn far behind. A consummate singing actress, she brings the kind of warmth and vulnerability to the character that those of us too young to remember can only imagine Gwen Verdon must have given her in the original production (1975).

Freidman’s finest musical moment comes in Roxie when her delight in her new found celebrity is thrilling, comic and touching all at the same time. By contrast, the desolation which threatens to swamp her when, at the end of the show, it all looks set to slip away is heartbreaking. Hers is a performance which goes way beyond the character’s obvious, purely comic potential and gives the show real heart. Like Hughes, she is not the best dancer to have played the role and their Hot Honey Rag finale loses some of its impact as a result. But, by this point, the audience is so won over by the charm of both performers that it hardly seems to matter.

Chicago should be seen by anyone who loves musicals, theatre or just a great night out. It is funny, charming, stirring and invigorating and a reminder of how, quite simply, no other art form offers so much pure entertainment value as the Broadway musical at its finest. The production also repays repeated viewing with each set of performers bringing their own individual talents to bear on such sensational material and with such varying, and consistently superb, results. And, best of all, while Broadway audiences now have the chance to see Ute Lemper’s brilliant and quirky Velma, London now boasts two of the most thrilling musical theatre performances to be seen anywhere.

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