Chicago made its first appearance on Broadway in 1975, and it lit up New York with its razzle dazzle. Reviving the show at London’s Phoenix Theatre now, however, doesn’t pack half the punch it would have then, with a half-hearted production unfortunately leaving it feeling dated.
It’s a typical glitzy, Broadway story with a touch of grit. Two wannabe performers, Roxie and Velma, who see their names up in lights are both arrested for murder, and call on a superstar lawyer to get them off the charges. He does it by wooing the press, splashing them across the front pages, and playing the jury into his hands, leaving his defendants free to become the stars they’ve always dreamed of being.
A musical about showbusiness like this, however, should be a bit more, well, showy. On a bare bones set (the band are placed at the back of the stage leaving little room for much else), with just a few lights doing the work, the production doesn’t capture the spectacle the show could be.
It’s also a show about sex, and the the first half lets you know it; it really does all it can to rinse every bit of sex appeal out of the show, but I lasted about 20 minutes before finding it forced. The second act has more depth, but by that point you’ve lost any empathy with the characters.
Making his musical debut as Billy Flynn, there’s no doubt Cuba Gooding Jnr. can act. He reels in the laughs as the slick lawyer, and he sure does have that suave pizzazz you need to play the part, it’s just a shame his voice doesn’t suit the songs. He has a naturally raspy voice, which is great when you’re playing a cocky seasoned lawyer, but it can be difficult to hear him as he strains to be heard over the band.
The band are a highlight of the show to be honest, in the sense that the score is Chicago’s star. You’ll get all the numbers you buy the ticket for: “All That Jazz”, “We Both Reached for The Gun” and “Razzle Dazzle” are classics - as is, in my opinion anyway, the underrated, understated “Mr Cellophane”. But they too feel quite tired in this show.
Ruthie Henshall becomes the first actor to play all three female leads as she takes on Mama Morton, the jailhouse warden who sets the girls up with Billy for a cut of the action. Her numbers are perfectly fine, but it simply feels like a couple of walk-on numbers.
All in all, the ensemble - who each already have a Chicago credit to their name - do justice to Bob Fosse’s winding choreography.But by the end of the evening, as Roxie and Velma finally get their shot as they take to the stage as a Vaudeville act, I wasn’t really bothered about where they were and how they got there; underwhelmed by a show that deserves much more.
Chicago Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"The show is harsh, cynical and funny and chimes well with an age that understands the psychotic nature of celebrity. I’m all for reviving old musicals, but this one has not been imaginatively rethought."
Michael Billington, The Guardian (three stars)
"Experienced musical theatre performers and ‘Chicago’ veterans Sarah Soetaert and Josefina Gabrielle hold down the main parts of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, feuding femme fatales in Prohibition-era Windy City. And they’re solid: the show retains a classy edge and strong fundamentals, not least because of the high kickin’ choreography, styled after that of the show’s original director Bob Fosse."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out (three stars)