Cuba Gooding Jnr has apparently been engaged to play Billy Flynn in Chicago at The Phoenix Theatre for fourteen weeks. By my calculation that means you need to wait until around the end of July – always presuming he lasts that long – in order to avoid one of the biggest misfires in stunt casting since Madonna last trod the boards.
The fact is, Mr Gooding sounds as if he’s shredded his vocal chords, and though he may well be a fine film actor, his talents do not appear to reach as far as the stage, let alone the musical theatre.
Fortunately there are genuine stars aplenty to compensate. (Spoiler alert…) Chief among them A.D. (The A stands for Alan) Richardson as Mary Sunshine, and ironically for a man who thinks nobody notices him, the peerless Paul Rider as Roxie Hart’s cuckolded husband, Amos.
Richardson has been no stranger to the stage of late having toured playing the female leads in various of Sasha Regan’s Gilbert and Sullivan productions, but here he feels more at home than I’ve seen him in a long time. I can only surmise that it was a sheltered upbringing and seeing this particular show for the first time – it’s been away for five whole years – that led a group of teenage girls seated a few rows behind to let out a genuinely shocked gasp when Mary Sunshine was finally shown not to be all she seemed. These are the things that a good night at the theatre are made of.
Rider by contrast plays his role with such understated subjugation that you genuinely feel for him, which is actually something of a problem because his wife Roxie Hart is played with such sweetness by Belgian actress Sarah Soethaert that you’re torn as to whose side you should be on. This is a twenty-first anniversary Roxie without the edge of, say Ruthie Henshall who played the original Roxie Hart when this production effectively first saw the light of day two decades ago.
A strange piece of casting, however, reminds us of what we’re missing…Ruthie Henshall – for some reason hiding that famously good figure – is now Matron Mama Morton. She’s good. But then, she’s good in everything.
Rounding off the female roles comes Josephina Gabrielle – six years Henshall’s senior, and with more than fifteen years on her Belgian co-star – who still somehow proves to be amongst the most supple and athletic members of the cast.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention the ages of the cast, except that in this case it feels as if they’re in the wrong roles. Oh, to see Ruthie back as Roxie (and now be the same age as her husband!), Gabrielle as Mama Morton, and somebody who could hack it as Billy Flynn. Still, we are where we are…
The chorus of tight buttocks and taut midriff’s doesn’t disappoint, Chris Warner Drake as Roxie’s victim Fred Casely chief among them.
The orchestra is reliable rather than exciting under the baton of Ian Townsend – the show’s original MD, the energetic Gareth Valentine, currently doing his best to bring Ruthless to life at The Arts.
All in all – with the exception of the stunt cast – a pleasant enough revival, but it had the effect of making me wish for times and casts gone by.
- Director: Stacey Haynes after Walter Bobbie
- Book: Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
- Music: Fred Ebb
- Lyrics: John Kander
- Starring: Cuba Gooding Jnr, Sarah Soetaert, Josefina Gabrielle, Ruthie Henshall, Paul Rider, Alan Richardson, and full supporting chorus
- Phoenix Theatre, London
- Until 6 October 2018