Confession time: I have a problem with the show Chicago. I first saw it on 14th April 1979 (look, there’s my programme and ticket stub in the picture below! Such a trend-setting teenager I was, just four days after opening night), and three weeks after the original production of A Chorus Line closed at Drury Lane, a show I’d seen eight times by that stage and which was, and remains, my favourite show of all time. To put it in context, I was missing my Chorus Line, and I hoped Chicago might fill its void. But I was wrong. Chicago is no Chorus Line. Chorus Line is highly moral; good gets rewarded, respect is given to everyone, and everyone is special, there are no celebrities. The songs and book are about talent, personal development, and being true to yourself. The costumes are either work-functional or showbiz pizazz. Michael Bennett’s choreography was optimistic, cheeky and bright.
Chicago, on the other hand, is highly amoral. Murderers and corrupt officials get rewarded, celebrity status is king, the good get downtrodden. The songs and book are about crime, cynicism and putting on an act. The costumes are sleazy. The Bob Fosse-inspired choreography was flashy, sexual and lurid. Why did I want to see this Leicester revival then? In fact I very nearly didn’t book for this show, but in the end I decided to “keep the faith” with the recent London A Chorus Line, as three impressive members of its cast are in it. History repeating itself in fact; the original London cast of Chicago featured five members of the Chorus Line cast who had lost their jobs three weeks earlier.
As a Chorus Line fan, I was always a Michael Bennett boy, never a Bob Fosse boy. But now, after seeing the Curve’s new production of Chicago, I think I could become a Drew McOnie boy. For one of this show’s chief highlights is the completely new set of routines by this young choreographer who we enjoyed watching a few years back on “So You Think You Can Dance”. You can’t classify his style by any one term, as every song, every routine has its own different flavour. I had no sense of repetition, but I did get a great sense of inventiveness, showbiz, sexiness and some mystery too. I particularly loved the transformation of “Razzle Dazzle” into a circus presentation. Above all, the choreography throughout was enjoyable and communicative, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
In case you don’t know, but may have surmised from my first paragraph anyway, Chicago is set in the 1920s and is based on the true stories of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner who got away with the murders of their lovers through their courtroom glamour and pretend vulnerability that made their all-male juries go weak at the knees. On stage in this show they become Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who live a celebrity lifestyle whilst on remand and are represented by the dashing lawyer Billy Flynn, whose interest in solely financial. The structure of the show is key to how the audience reacts to it, as each scene is introduced by a member of the cast addressing the audience directly and telling them what to expect in 100% Bertolt Brecht style. Brecht’s original vision was deliberately to distance the audience from the action, and it’s absolutely true, it’s an incredibly effective device to take you one step further away in each scene from either identifying with the characters or from getting lost and involved in the action. I think that’s one of the reasons I have reservations about the show. It’s intriguing without being all-involving.
I also found the some of the costumes rather off-putting too. With the original Fosse choreography, a sense of sleaziness felt very appropriate, but in this production I don’t think the choreography requires it. In fact I thought some of the “boys-in-a-basque” costumes bordered on the Rocky Horror instead, which I’m sure is not what was intended. After all, I follow some of these chaps on twitter, it doesn’t feel entirely decent to see them clad so dubiously. I’m also not entirely sure I like the “unveiling” of the character of Mary Sunshine at the end either; in the other productions I’ve seen, the performer’s details in the programme feature an androgynous face and their first name is in initials so you can’t be entirely sure if it’s a man or a woman; but at the Curve, we know straight away that the character is played by Adam Bailey, so revealing his bare chest at the end is I feel both prurient and redundant.
However, what is beyond doubt is that Paul Kerryson has assembled a cast of great talent who work together fantastically well, and who sing and dance with superb skill. The double act of Verity Rushworth and Gemma Sutton as the wicked Velma and Roxie works brilliantly. Miss Sutton’s Roxie is a harsh heartless bitch who transforms herself into a glamourpuss-de-luxe at the flash of an instamatic; and Miss Rushworth’s Velma is a world-weary siren who can knock out a song with ultimate conviction and appeal. Sandra Marvin is un-take-your-eyes-off-able as the devious Mama Morton, the “matron” of the convicts who will look after her girls as long as they look after Mama. That Curve stage always strikes me as being massive but she completely fills it with her show-stopping performance. David Leonard is a superb sleazebag as the arrogant Billy Flynn, and Matthew Barrow turns in a great performance as Roxie’s ineffectual husband Amos. His “Mister Cellophane” number was terrific stuff – again with clever use of circus elements – and his so-called “exit music” drew a huge sigh of sympathy from the audience. The chorus who fill the minor roles are all excellent; I would expect no less from Harry Francis, Simon Hardwick and Katy Hards (the ex-Chorus Line contingent) but also Zizi Strallen was a beguiling Mona and Anabel Kutay a tragic Hunyak.
Ben Atkinson’s band were sensational and brought the best out of John Kander’s jazzy and exciting tunes. Al Parkinson’s set is cunningly gloomy for the prison scenes – the low hung light bulbs over the front few rows of the stalls at the beginning almost makes us feel part of the set – but then is minimalist enough accurately to suggest all the locations without getting in the way of the dancing. It’s very rewarding to see such a committed performance from everyone involved and I’m pretty sure (from memory) that this is a more fulfilling production than the original London one or the touring show we saw at Milton Keynes in 2007. The combination of vocal and dance skills with the new choreography and fabulous band make this a really excellent show. It’s still on for a couple more weeks so if you prefer your murderesses sassy, you’ve come to the right place!