Review – Chicago

Chicago, which has just returned to the West End after 20 years away, is the archetypal big commercial musical.

Its immaculate pedigree ensures stunning choreography (originated by the legendary Bob Fosse); outstanding musical numbers (from Fred Ebb and John Kander) and a company cherry-picked to be pitch perfect.

It would be criminal if this sensational show wasn’t a smash hit. In fact, the run had been extended ahead of its opening at the Phoenix Theatre.

The production has regularly toured the UK and has played to packed houses so I’ve every confidence that this London revival will pull in the punters. How could it not?

Raunchy, sexy as hell, darkly comic, it arrests the audience in the first few seconds, when the on-stage band strike up the first few notes, and continues to hold them in detention until long after the curtain falls.

Indeed, the band are enjoying themselves so much that they continue playing as the theatre rises and no-one wants to leave.

The producers have gone for a big name to put bums on seats and they really didn’t need to particularly, as it turns out, the big name is the show’s weakest link.

Hollywood film star Cuba Gooding Jr has made his name on the big screen. He doesn’t have an established career on the stage and, I don’t believe, he has ever appeared in a musical before.

He has only been in the role of hotshot lawyer, Billy Flynn, for a couple of weeks and already his voice is sounding gravelly.

At last night’s show, less than a week after the official opening, he struggled with some notes and even his speaking voice sounded husky. I can’t see it lasting the month much less the run.

He’s not much of a singer but he gives it his best shot. What he does bring to the part is charm and humour. His Flynn is less a misogynist and more an opportunist with a glib tongue.

Chicago, for those who may not have seen it, is a satire about corruption but, equally importantly in today’s reality TV and selfie-climate, about the ethereal nature of fame and celebrity culture.

The musical was written in 1975 and is based on a 1926 play of the same name by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about real criminals whose court cases she covered.

At its heart are the inmates from the Cook County Jail, a group of women, headed by peroxide blonde Roxy Hart and her nemesis Velma Kelly, who are all incarcerated and awaiting trial for murder.

The only thing that stands between them and a rope is the corrupt matron, Mama Morton, and lawyer Billy Flynn who will take their cases for $5,000 no questions asked.

I first saw the show, a touring production, in 2004 and, in all honesty, nothing much has changed except the faces. Is that a criticism? I don’t think so. Why meddle with a sure fire formula that you know will be successful?

The design is exactly the same, the set is predominately black with a smattering of gold with the band taking up most of the performance space and the dancers sat on wooden chairs in the wings.

The well-honed hoofers are dressed in little more than a bit of black mesh. Skin tight trousers and abs on show for the guys and corsets and net for the gals.

This time around the band, under the direction of Ian Townsend, are premier division (the post-interval Entr’acte is smokin’) and the razor sharp choreography (Gary Chryst from Ann Reinking out of Bob Fosse) is inspired. I couldn’t take my eyes off Todd Talbot but any, and all, of the dancers are faultless.

Razzle Dazzle? They nailed it. Bump and grind, jazz hands and pelvic rotations. Hot, hot, hot.

Sarah Soetaert sparkles as the dumb blonde, Roxy, whose one crack at stardom is her 15 minutes of courtroom fame.

Vivacious, mischievous and enchanting Soetaert lights up the stage with a heady combination of innocence and charisma. She mesmerises the jury – of one (Abramo Ciullo in a variety of comic disguises), while pulling the wool over the eyes of her hapless, cuckolded husband, Amos (Paul Rider wringing out the pathos from every look and line).

Velma, the prison’s former first lady, has her nose put out of joint when Flynn puts her case on the back burner to take Roxy’s trial but Josefina Gabrielle milks the part for every comic moment. Her and Soetaert make a great double act.

Ruthie Henshall, who was Olivier-nominated for Roxy the last time it was in London, makes a nostalgic return to the show as Mama Morton but this West End legend isn’t really given enough to do.

In a show that oozes sex appeal and wit there is still room for some originality and innovation and, as always, the appearances of reporter Mary Sunshine throughout are a real highlight.

AD Richardson, whose vocal range is something to behold, has created a wonderful, larger-than-life character in Mary, who, like everyone else in the show, has secrets they’d rather keep hidden.

You’ll come out singing All That Jazz, or Razzle Dazzle or even Mister Cellophane (accompanied by a little sway, I guarantee, as you totter off to catch the tube) and, if you’ve got any sense, you’ll book to see it again.

Chicago is faultless, as always. There are no surprises from this revival but this multi award-winning, slick and stylish, musical doesn’t put a foot wrong. Sublime musical numbers, choreography and performances, it razzle dazzles throughout.

Chicago runs at the Phoenix Theatre until October 6.

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