I saw the latest cast of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago in Oxford where it was starting on a new tour. The production is the same one that comes from New York and was based on the original production that was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. It was revived in the 1990s by Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking; and except for a few adaptations, depending upon who is playing which role now; essentially you are seeing the original concept in most of its glory. It is certainly fascinating to see the new ensemble – not just the people in the main roles, but also the company. The whole ensemble fits beautifully into the ambience of this almost cabaret-like presentation of the story; everyone’s movements are sharp, well-drilled and the singing has a clarity that is needed to convey the lyrics. I took my teen-aged grand-daughter to the show; she was seeing it for the first time; and, like the original audiences for this production, she was bowled over and very excited. This is a concept/production that simply stays contemporary.
The use of real theatre of the absurd and Brechtian alienation techniques, still works a treat. For a production that is now approaching twenty years of age, the evening comes up remarkably fresh and clever. John Partridge is rightly a lead attraction as an irrepressible, irresponsible, egotistical Billy Flynn of great charm, menace and pizzazz; and Sam Bailey makes a memorable Momma Morton. Both Hayley Tammadon as Roxie Hart and Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma Kelly are very much up to the demands of their roles in terms of vocals, movement and acting. Neil Ditt is both superbly hollow and appealing as Amos Hart and he brings off the Mister Cellophane number perfectly – abetted, of course, by the totally apt tempi of Musical Director Ben Atkinson. A D Richardson is a memorable delight as Miss Mary Sunshine, both vocally and dramatically. And Frances Dee’s Hunyak is sweet, believable and ultimately wrenches your heart.
All the highlight moments, from the opening number “All That Jazz” through “The Cell Block Tango”, “We Both Reached for the Gun” and on to the dazzling Finale come off strongly. The night I attended the audience got more and more vociferous with delight after each number; indeed, there isn’t a dud routine or song.
The cast and band were already working at a very high level, and they will probably be as close to perfection as anyone can get by the time they have done a few more performances. These are people who are clearly relishing the demands and the satire of Chicago and enjoying the challenges of both the dramatic form and the singing and dancing required. Ultimately, the show doesn’t age because of the concept and choreography of Bob Fosse whose legendary dance routines still surprise and delight and who has created a sexy, raunchy and very grown up music theatre experience. The angularity and the obligatory hats are all in place.
If you’ve seen only Rob Marshall’s 2002 film Chicago, the innovative and highly imaginative live staging may startle you. If you’ve seen William Wellman’s 1942 film called Roxie Hart with Ginger Rogers you will be shocked by how much of this material the Hays Office made them change. I do recommend both those films; but for me it is the Bob Fosse show that really lets rip and is the most compelling and memorable version of the tale – which is based on a couple of real murderers. This production is one of the most original and clever ways of telling a story ever devised for a music theatre piece and makes brilliant use of the theatricality of seeing a live show. The music direction this time out is as good as I have ever heard it (three cheers for every member of the band as well as Ben Atkinson); the musicians make up a very rousing and appealing jazz band; and the pacing of the whole evening is exemplary and feels just right. The night I went there was the odd fleeting glitch or hesitation, but these were very few and very brief, probably unnoticed by most of the audience; and I have no doubt that when Chicago arrives in a theatre near you and if you go along to experience it, it won’t disappoint. The ethos and ambience of a corrupt, mobster controlled, Prohibition city of Chicago in 1926 or 1927 are beautifully conveyed.
After Oxford the show will be touring to Wimbledon, Dartford, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Manchester, Bradford, Eastbourne, Torquay, Truro, Dublin, Northampton, Crawley, Edinburgh, Wolverhampton, Southend and Bristol. I strongly recommend that you catch it if you can, especially if you are any kind of music theatre buff or if you simply want to experience some memorable, treasurable skilled performances!