Chicago - The Musical
(Note: These are old reviews and the cast has now changed many times!!)
Review by Amanda Hodges
Chicago remains of the sassiest, most stylish musicals on the London stage and it's no surprise that a whole host of well known faces have appeared in various roles since it first opened in 1997. The latest guest artiste is singer Marti Pellow who's just made an exciting debut in the role of Billy Flynn earlier this month. Set in the 1920's twilight world of Chicago, the plot loosely revolves around the showgirl Roxie Hart and her attempts to extricate herself from an inconvenient murder charge that's getting in the way of her career.
Flynn is the slick, consummately devious lawyer who uses the old 'razzle-dazzle' of sheer showmanship to wow a gullible media and promote the causes of his various- usually culpable- clients. From the first moment he appears, satirically framed by a circlet of feather boas, Flynn is at the centre of the action and you need a performer of strong presence- and persuasive charm- to carry off the role. Fortunately, despite a sometimes interestingly varied American accent, Pellow oozes panache and has a rich, smooth voice that perfectly fits the character's synthetic sincerity.
As girls disputing the old adage that "crime doesn't pay", Anita Louise Combe (Roxie) and Anna-Jane Casey (Velma) are both good, Cassey in particular persuasive as the thwarted Velma who finds her position as queen bee of the prison being eclipsed by the ingenious exploits of scheming Roxie. Nether quite reach the heights of predecessors Ruthie Henshall or Ute Lemper, but judged independently they give winning performances, capably supported by an excellent ensemble.
I must have been one of the last people to see this show. After the initial hype and rush I still had no desire to see the show prompted one critic to comment "It's the combination of slinky dancing and tart songs that makes "Chicago" stand out from the others." Passing the theatre this weekend, though, I decided to see for myself.
Sorry to say that I saw nothing to convince me that the show is worthy of its long run and high praise. True, there were some fine performances, from Annette McLaughlin, Susannah Fellows, Vanessa Leagh-Hicks and Mattie Clay-White. But there was no magic in the show, perhaps understandably when the show is staged as it would would be in a school hall. The plot is minimal and we never really get to know the characters. In my mind I kept seeing Maria Friedman in the show, singing "All That Jazz", and it always segued into "Words, Words, Words".
The show looks like a cross between "Mama Mia" and "Fame" - a group of songs strung together with a lame excuse for a story, and maybe four main cast members and a cast of extras who run on, dance, and go off again. The difference is that "Fame" is entertaining! Across the road from the Adelphi is the Savoy, home (briefly) of "Tess". Maybe it's something about the Strand that shows opening there are dark, dull and uninvolving. (Incidentally, I saw "Buddy" recently - the noisiest backstage crew in London, three mobile phones in the audience, and Gus McGregor as Buddy the only actor making an effort.)
The dancing is impressive, as are the excellent band. Robert Purvis conducts with precision and unmistakable skill, and the band seems to enjoy themselves. It's a shame the cast don't put across the same happiness. Sacha Distel is hopelessly miscast as Billy Flynn - he can hold a tune, and his voice has a pleasant tone, but his words (spoken and sung) are unintelligible. George Layton as Amos Hart plays the part as if he was playing Eddie from Blood Brothers - he's not put upon, he's stupid and childish. Petra Nielsen as Roxie never becomes a character, always seeming unnecessary.
Annette McLaughlin and Susannah Fellows had good chemistry on stage, and strong voices that were an added bonus. Mattie Clay-White was amazing, making a very convincing female. I know this won't make me many friends, but the show is as unattractive as its theatrical home. It's dark, bland, dusty, showing its age, and needs serious renovation.
Chicago has been running for over a year to packed houses and has now had a complete cast change. So how does this new cast compare to the original? Has the show lost any of its razzmatazz? Will it continue to enjoy sold out houses?
"Chicago", directed by Walter Bobbie, has music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, and is based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins.
The story concerns 'Roxie Hart', a woman who has murdered her lover and now seeks the help of ' Billy Flynn', a sleazy lawyer, to help her get acquitted. The lawyer, 'Billy Flynn' has other clients as well, and one in particular 'Velma Kelly' a celebrity who thinks she knows all the tricks to clear herself of her murder charge. Or rather that is until 'Roxy' appears on the scene! What ensues is a battle between them for media attention in order to gain public sympathy for their cases.
When I saw the show with the original cast it was one of the best musical productions I had ever seen, and it still is. However, this new cast are not as exceptional as the original.
Nicola Hughes has the most difficult task. Having to take over the role of ' Velma' which was played brilliantly by Ute Lemper. I don't think there is an actress in the world who could have matched Lemper in this role. She was born for the part. Nevertheless, Nicola is still a superb and talented performer. In fact she brings her own style and technique to the show and impresses. Actually, I have seen Nicole on stage a couple of times in recent years, 'Donna' in "The Goodbye Girl"and 'The Acid Queen' in "Tommy", and she excelled in both!
The popular Maria Friedman, one of my favourite stars, has taken over the role of 'Roxie' from Ruthie Henshall, and again this is a difficult act to follow. Unfortunately, Maria is unable to match Ruthie Henshall's extraordinary performance. Her voice is not as powerful and as strong as Ruthie's and the dance routines not as sharp. However, she still impresses and shows great skill and talent. She also brings more humour and laughs to the role.
Clarke Peters is a fine 'Billy Flynn' and Peter Davison is superb as downtrodden 'Amos Hart'. Both are equal to Henry Goodman and Nigel Planer who played the original parts.
The popular press are still impressed with Chicago, but like me still think the original cast were better. The headline in the EVENING STANDARD'S review by NICHOLAS DE JONGH reads" Cast in a new dapper decadence". De Jongh goes on to say "Ute Lemper's legs and Dietrich-like face…are missed", but goes on to say that Nicola Hughes "Boasts a fine athletic vigour". De Jongh's view of Maria Friedman's performance is " There's something obstinately, wrongly well-bred and soulful about her Roxie". JEREMY KINGSTON says "Enjoy a tremendous evening in theatre." MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says " "One year after its triumphant opening, this sleek and sexy revival … is in fine, high-strutting shape." DAVID BENDICT of THE INDEPENDENT was very enthusiastic about Chicago saying, "It just got better." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Chicago has lost almost none of its famous razzle-dazzle" and goes on to say "Those looking for truly adult pleasures should make haste to Chicago."
Even though the two leading ladies are not as phenomenal as the original, Chicago is still a great musical that is a 'must see' on the West End.
Four months ago on 18th November 1997, "Chicago" hit the West End with some of the best notices any show has received in recent times. The show has been a phenomenal success and is currently sold out for the next 3 to 4 months. I waited a few months to see this show in order to see if it would maintain its freshness and momentum after all the hype had died down. I can tell you that this show lives up to all expectations and more. The performers were so fresh you would have thought it was opening night!
"Chicago" , written in 1975, has music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, and is based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins.
"Chicago", which is directed by Walter Bobbie concerns 'Roxie Hart', a woman who has murdered her lover and now seeks the help of a sleazy lawyer to help her get acquitted. The lawyer, 'Billy Flynn' has other clients as well, and one in particular 'Velma Kelly' a celebrity who thinks she knows all the tricks to clear herself of her murder charge. Or rather that is until 'Roxy' appears on the scene! What ensues is a battle between them for media attention to gain sympathy for their cases.
This is without doubt the hottest show to hit the West End in years. It is a breathtaking musical extravaganza that is simply brilliant. It has some catchy and wonderful songs, like 'All That Jazz', 'Razzle Dazzle', 'Class', 'All I Care About' and the wonderful 'Mister Cellophane'. It has superb dance routines that are original and exciting. Ute Lemper is simply wild, sexy and breathtaking as 'Velma'. You can see why she won the 1998 Olivier award for Best Actress in a musical. Ruthie Henshall is also dynamic as 'Roxie' and frankly it must have been very hard for the judges of the Olivier's to choose between these two. Henry Goodman as the corrupt lawyer ' Billy Flynn' and 'Nigel Planer' as 'Roxie's' boring, put upon husband 'Amos Hart' are both perfectly cast for these parts and are a joy to watch.
No props or big sets are used to enhance the show. The only thing on stage is a giant bandstand, which remains on stage the whole time. In fact, the conductor is part of the attraction as he bounces up and down in rhythm with the music. I'm sure he must be on something!!
The notices from the popular press were all in agreement. NICHOLAS DE JONGH says the show is a "delectable feast of wit, fun, nostalgia music and songs". BILL HAGERTY of THE NEWS OF THE WORLD says it is " A revival that's as close to musical theatre heaven as you are likely to get nowadays". PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, "Hot revival with plenty of sass" and goes on to say "Kander and Ebb are certainly at their best here". JANE EDWARDES of TIME OUT says "It's the combination of slinky dancing and tart songs that makes "Chicago" stand out from the others."
This is a show that is not to be missed, particularly with this cast.
Go book your tickets now!
(Darren Dalglish )
Review by John Timperley
29th Oct 1997
CHICAGO first saw the light of day in 1975. It crept into our consciousness, won awards, but didn't make everyone sit up and take notice. Nowadays, when we're more used to murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, treachery and (to quote the programme introduction) all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts, it will be noticed. I predict it will run, and run, and run.
In short, it's the sweetest, funniest, sexiest murder story ever.
With FLORA THE RED MENACE, CABARET and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN under their belts, Fred Ebb and John Kander have never been afraid to tackle contentious subjects - and to delve into the depths of our emotions.
CHICAGO has attributes other than digging deep. It is funny like a rippling brook and unashamedly, openly, Gianni Versace sexy. I would commit murder myself to be incarcerated with such a group of ravishing jailbirds - and willingly work my way through college on the way to the gallows.
For me, this show is a testimony to the brilliance of the late Bob Fosse. He collaborated in writing the book of the play and brought his brilliance as a choreographer into the very heart of the drama. His legacy lives on through Ann Reinking, until recently starring in the Broadway production, but now in London - directing the dance sequences.
When the curtain goes up and you see the orchestra taking up most of the Adelphi stage, you wonder how they are going to move it away when the action starts. They don't move it, but the play moves you. Without being obtrusive we get the full benefit of the brilliant John Kander score whilst the action takes place on a cleverly utilised, and focused, front of stage.
Roxie (Ruthie Henshall) is a role you'd kill for - and she does - kill I mean - in the opening scene. Now - you ask yourself - can this charming, talented trouper top her roles in CATS, OLIVER, MISS SAIGON, LES MIS, CRAZY FOR YOU, SHE LOVES ME, A CHORUS LINE and DIVORCE ME DARLING. Don't rush to find out - she'll be at the Adelphi for a long time, fine tuning her wickedness.
The opening number All That Jazz lays the show right on the line. If I was mesmerised by the women it's because I wear trousers - most of the time. The male dancers are like sharks at a mermaid's picnic and I share their lust.
Until Roxie establishes herself, the big shot amongst the female felons is Velma Kelly (Ute Lemper) who is bitchily bossy and breathtakingly balletic. Her legs go on for ever and teach us that perpendicular is somewhere else. Up there, in the flys.
Her accomodating captor is the prison Matron (Mama) Morton (Meg Johnson) who takes a cut from every known exploitation, except the crime of murder which epitomises the wrongdoing of every bird of passion in her latter-day Alcatraz.
Other roles. Roxie's husband, Amos Hart (Nigel Planer) is pathetically pleasing and deserving of her love and ours, but he is, as he explains in the lyrically strong song Mister Cellophane, an easy figure to ignore. When he is finally forced to admit Roxie's treachery and asks for his exit music, he has to walk off in total silence. Hard on a man.
Billy Flynn (Henry Goodman) is the sleazy, hook-nosed, evil, sonofabitch lawyer, who wheadles his way into everbody's back pocket. I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog's leavings on the sidewalk, while I was in a bank collecting his bribe. Having seen Henry playing Nathan Detroit in GUYS AND DOLLS at the RNT, the trouble for me is that he can't put a foot wrong, and he will surely linger in my memory as the advocate who saves our now beloved Roxie from the big drop.
One day, someone will have to explain to me what Mary Sunshine (C. Shirvell) is all about. For now, I'm going to luxuriate in the memory of Fred Ebb's script and lyrics. Unlike, for example, CITY OF ANGELS they are well spaced and crystal clear - we know what's going on every step of the way.
You won't find a better series of "steps on the way" in any musical which compares favourably with Razzle Dazzle. It raises goose pimples in places where the sands of time have long run out.
Which is why I'm tempted to express personal, biased, lusty feelings for two gamines - Mona (Jacqui Jameson) and Go-To-Hell Kitty (Vanessa Leach-Hicks). I'm available, but don't call me - you'd be disappointed. I wasn't.
This American classic, directed by Walter Bobbie, will be around for years - as a flagship of everything that's best about West End theatre.
Give 'em the old razzle dazzle. Yeah - razzle dazzle 'em.