There are few stage musicals that bring the promise of a fun night out quite as much as Chicago. I’m sure you know the story; nightclub singer Roxie Hart murders her lover, dupes her husband into taking the blame and then when he realises her guilt, she still gets him to pay top Chicago lawyer Billy Flynn to defend her. Flynn’s method is to sensationalise the crime and make murder into a top showbiz event. Cellmate Velma Kelly meanwhile resents how Roxie has hogged Flynn’s attention and imagination and has worsened her own chances of a top quality media-frenzy trial. Will Roxie be found guilty? You can bank on it that she won’t. Does it even matter?
I was checking back over my records to see how many productions of Chicago I’ve seen – and this is the fifth. As a show, it started comparatively quietly and sedately in the late 70s, but then grew in brashness over the years, encouraging star names to take the lead roles, accentuating the provocativeness of the original Fosse choreography, and now becoming a raucous celebration and triumph of bad over good, with murderers and adulterers thriving, and decent souls being trodden underfoot. That’s why, in the past, I have always had something of a personal problem with Chicago, because despite all its doubtless qualities and some smash hit tunes, I get really depressed by its moral compass!
So how does this new production, that opened a few weeks ago in Glasgow, shape up? Like Priscilla, which smashed back onto the Derngate stage in August, this is another strong, hugely entertaining production designed not merely to dust off the cobwebs of the lockdowns but to blast them into outer space. With 80s chart topper Sinitta as Mama Morton, and stage and TV musical entertainer Darren Day as Billy Flynn, you know that you’re in very safe hands musically.
But I’m underestimating it here. Expecting, as usual, to be put off by its lack of decency, I saw the show last night through a whole new set of eyes. Primarily, it’s all about the music. Andrew Hilton’s band occupy the prime position on stage all through the show, making them its star. None of this discreet, out of the way, hiding behind the scenery band presence; they’re full on, centre stage, with Mr Hilton playing just as important a role as any of the other main characters, even ending up as the MC for the curtain call, which works delightfully well. The band put their all into beefing up those Kander and Ebb numbers, and from the opening moments with the instantly recognisable and pleasing All that Jazz, you deeply suspect you’re on to a winner. Every song is treated as though it is a showstopper, and every arrangement is dynamic and thrilling. As well as that first number, there’s the Cell Block Tango to enjoy, When You’re Good to Mama, Razzle Dazzle and my own favourite, the deeply ironic Mr Cellophane. If I was marking Kander and Ebb’s homework, I still feel that the song Roxie is way too long. It’s a great tune and routine, but it has the effect of putting the whole show on hold for several minutes, and I get exasperated by it. Just a little pet peeve of mine.
This is, if I remember rightly, the same staging as the last time I saw it, in the very same theatre, in 2016. That time, I was dismayed by how much the orchestra “pod” juts out into the stage, bizarrely eliminating 80% of the acting and dancing space. This time I realise that it emphasises the importance of the band and the relative unimportance of most of the characters. Deep down, Roxie, Velma, Amos and so on are unremarkable people, previously living unremarkable lives, only thrown into the limelight because of the act of murder. Even Mama Morton is a mere prison officer civil servant who’s succeeded through networking and corruption. When Roxie complains to Billy Flynn that he’s treating her like a common criminal, he replies that’s what she is; minor characters united through a society that thrives on violence.
But there’s one character who isn’t unremarkable – Billy Flynn. He rises above all the mire in a sea of showmanship, he pays no attention to the question of guilt, he’s not interested in the truth, he’s only interested in money. He knows how to fashion a speech to elicit exactly the right response from the jury. He knows that colour and glamour, and a degree of eccentricity will get him to the top. He knows that if he gives the people the old razzle dazzle, that’s what they want. And at the end, he’s manipulated, lied, and schemed his way to even further success. Now replace Billy Flynn in your mind with Boris Johnson, and see how Chicago in the 21st century sits beautifully as a political allegory for our times.
The show is perfectly cast throughout. Faye Brookes is brilliant as Roxie; she has just the right innocent, demure air that conceals a vicious, murderous interior, which is also masked by having, I know it’s a cliché but it’s true, the voice of an angel. At our performance, Velma was played by understudy Michelle Andrews as a great portrayal of the top dog who’s on her way down, with amazing vocal and dance skills and terrific star quality. Sinitta gave us a very different Mama Morton from any other I’d seen before; quieter, more elegant and stylised, and less of a pantomime villain. She has a wonderful voice and harmonises superbly with Ms Andrews in the song Class; in fact, all the harmonies throughout the show were incredibly good.
Darren Day’s Billy Flynn is immaculate and refined, totally calm under pressure and self-assured in every way. He portrays him as a guy to whom riches flow as naturally as the river to the sea. Again, this portrayal is no panto villain, but a very believable smooth operator who’s totally open about his methods – why wouldn’t he be, he’s not ashamed of them! Joel Montague is perfect as Amos, capturing just the right degree of credulous oafishness and winning all our support as the sole voice of decency. It’s always a marvellous moment when Amos calls for his exit music and the otherwise super-responsive band stays silent.
Divina de Campo makes a fantastic Mary Sunshine, with luscious soprano skills and a warm, magnetic stage presence. As the decades pass, I’ve become less and less convinced by the necessity or, indeed, point of the “unveiling” moment; in the old days the actor playing the role would have just their initials and surname in the programme, so there might have been some surprise to discover that she was a he. But this is Divina de Campo – we all know who she is – so when Flynn whips her wig and top away, it’s no biggie. It also just comes across as cruel, numbing the audience into silence. It was the only moment of the show that I felt Just Didn’t Work.
The members of the ensemble all turn in superb singing and dancing performance. All Mama’s girls in the Cell Block Tango did a great job in explaining their criminal motivations – I particularly loved Hollie Jane Stephens’ truly pathetic Hunyak; Joel Benjamin was excellent as the obnoxious Fred Casely (he had it coming), and Theo Reece makes a terrific professional debut.
I expected to find myself actively resistant to the show’s much vaunted irresistible charms, but for the first time in five productions – I think I finally get it! This is a wonderful production that makes the wise decision to emphasise the music and the band over anything else, resulting in a hugely entertaining and exhilarating evening. It’s on a massive tour that continues all over the country into July 2022, so you’ve got no excuse not to see it! And if, like me, you have always thought Chicago was a bit….well, meh…. see this production, it will open your eyes!
Promotional photos by Matt Crockett