Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2021

ChicagoThere 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!

SinittaSo 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.

Djalenga ScottThis 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.

Darren DayBut 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.

Faye BrookesThe 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.

Joel MontagueDarren 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 CampoDivina 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

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

 

Review – Mame, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th January 2020

82362779_768182660335758_272802926638923776_nIt was with high expectation that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend, the Wizard of Warwick, took our seats in the Royal theatre for the Saturday matinee of Mame. It has come from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, which is rapidly garnering a reputation for top quality work, and critics and friends alike have heaped high praise on it. And it would be a welcome return to the Royal for Tracie Bennett, who started the fantastic journey of End of the Rainbow here back in 2010, one of the Made in Northampton productions that became a great success, with a West End and Broadway transfer.

CastIt’s been fifty years since Mame coaxed the blues right out of the horn on the West End stage, so a revival was more than due. With curious but useful timing, those nice people at Lost Musicals produced a staged reading of the original source play, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, last year, and a thoroughly enjoyable play it is too. In fact – I’m going to be bold here – I think it’s probably better as a play than as a musical, with no insult intended to the late great Jerry Herman, or the creative team from the Hope Mill. I was fascinated to realise that the musical is 100% faithful to the play. I’m sure that even the same lines are spoken in both the play and the musical; it’s like Jerry Herman took the play, wrote some songs, and simply dropped them into place whilst keeping most of the original as the framework. As a result, most of the songs commit what I think is the cardinal sin of musicals, they don’t move the story along. It’s plot development – song – plot development – song in a very start-stop manner so that the plot doesn’t really grow organically.

Mame and Young PatrickAnd that plot is very much a game of two halves. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the rest of this paragraph. On Side One, young Patrick Dennis is brought to New York to live with his only relative, his Auntie Mame, who lives a swell, party existence and knows how to have a good time. She introduces him to her slightly outré lifestyle, and he reacts rather well to it. But the Wall Street Crash decimates Mame’s bank balance and it’s whilst she’s out attempting to earn a meagre living (never having had to work, she’s useless at it) that she meets Southern Gentleman and Plantation Owner, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Beau is smitten with Mame, and she’s smitten with his income. They wed and go on an extended honeymoon, during which time Patrick starts to grow up, and Beau comes to a sticky end by falling off a mountain. Side Two sees an older Patrick fall in love with the ultra-twee Gloria Upson, who’s blessed by an enormously bigoted family and Mame realises they’re all quite unsuitable for Patrick, although he can’t see it. However, after a dreadful dinner party where home truths are revealed, and a “chance” (it was no chance) meeting with Mame’s new assistant, Pegeen Ryan, Patrick comes back into the bosom of his family and he and Pegeen live happily ever after.

Vera and MameDespite the fact that the music holds back the plot rather than pushes it forward, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable show, with one famous showstopper number (the eponymous Mame) and a few other good songs; but I was surprised at how Jerry Hermanesque the whole show is. The stand-alone song Mame is the younger sister of the stand-alone, two years later, song Hello Dolly, in that it’s a full-on peaen to the wonderfulness of its title character. The well-known We Need a Little Christmas is a tweak away from Horace Vandergelder’s It Takes A Woman from Hello Dolly; Bosom Buddies is clearly the first version of I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles. Plot structure too; the story climax of Mame is the disastrous get-together with Patrick’s intended’s ghastly family. The climax of La Cage aux Folles comes with Georges’ and Albin’s son’s fiancé’s equally ghastly family having to be rushed out of the club in disguise; very similar plot devices involving ghastly prospective in-laws in disastrous social occasions. And I sense this is the tip of the iceberg where it comes to similarities between Mame and Herman’s other works.

such a partyNick Winston’s carefree and joyous production does the near-impossible by cramming athletic and dynamic choreography into the teensiest of acting spaces. Frankly, it’s a miracle that no one collides with each other because (it seemed to me) there was no quarter given as to the choreographic content and the skill of the dancers in the cast, whilst the Royal offers little in the way of extensive acting areas. To be fair, Philip Whitcomb’s set includes two doorways to the left and right of the stage that intrude considerably into the main area and make the centre stage dancing seem even more compact. I’ve never felt such a feeling of claustrophobia with the Royal stage as I did whilst watching that large cast work their way through the show’s big ensemble numbers. But they did it; and they did it magnificently.

IWe Need a little Christmasn addition to the choreography, the show looks and sounds as decadent and sybaritic as you would expect, with glamorous, showbiz cocktail parties, and a wealthy fox-hunt gathering (it’s ok, Mame saves the fox from being killed, phew). Alex Parker’s musicians are semi-hidden at the bottom of the big sweeping staircase at the back of the stage, as though Mame has a permanent house-band on hand (and why wouldn’t she?) The costumes are all superb – a great mix of classical refinement and showbiz indulgence – and there’s an exhilarating lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

unsafe manicuristTracie Bennett is every bit as fantastic as you might expect. Although she’s a petite lady, she doth bestride that stage like a Colossus, as Steven Berkoff once almost wrote. She slips from comedy routine to dramatic Torch Song with effortless ease and fully deserved the instant standing ovation that erupted on her curtain call. Just as she was Judy Garland ten years ago, she is now Mame Dennis. She inhabits those larger than life characters so minutely and so intimately that she takes your breath away.

Agnes lets ripHarriet Thorpe gives an enormously entertaining performance as Mame’s acting friend Vera, a cross between a Grande Dame of Thespis and a tipsy old sot. There’s excellent support from Lewis Rae as Lindsay, Mame’s legal adviser, and Hugh Osborne as Babcock, the grumpy manager of her late brother’s estate. Jessie May makes a great transformation as Agnes Gooch, portraying her as the dowdy drudge to which she naturally defaults and as the swinging sexpot that Mame and Vera create out of her – a very good comedy performance. Darren Day took the part of Beau, and looked and sounded every inch the Southern Gentleman, although he did seem to falter at times; having been brought quite recently into the cast I wondered if he was a trifle under-rehearsed.

having a danceTalking of swapping roles, hats off to Mark Faith, who gave nifty performances as Mr Upson and Uncle Jeff without making them into caricatures, as he had just one between this week’s run and last week playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella in Sheffield. There’s a busy guy! The rest of the cast also all give great support and I was very impressed with the dancing of the ensemble performers, especially Jabari Braham who stood out as exceptional. And of course, there’s a tremendous performance by young Lochlan White, who played Young Patrick in our matinee. Great work – and a great acting future for him I’m sure.

Mame and VeraA curiously old-fashioned show; compared with Guys and Dolls, say, currently on in Sheffield, Mame feels like almost a museum piece, even though it’s more than ten years younger. However, the show is given a great treatment by Nick Winston and his cast and provides terrific all round entertainment. Mame returns for one more week at the Salisbury Playhouse starting 21st January. Recommended!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

In a nutshell: Fun, flamboyant but strangely old-fashioned, this old musical gets a ravishing revival and Tracie Bennett is outstanding.

Four they’re jolly good fellows