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 – Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016

Funny GirlYes, gentle reader, I was one of those hopefuls poised at their computer on the 17th August last year, the day when Funny Girl tickets went on general sale. The run was sold out in an instant. I was lucky enough to procure our favourite Menier combination of Row A for a Sunday matinee, for very nearly the end of the run – it closes this weekend. But of course, the production is transferring to the Savoy, as was announced at the end of October – before it had actually opened, such was the public’s faith in the show; a twelve-week, limited engagement from April 9th. And now, even before the transfer has opened, it’s been extended by another three months, taking it to October. That is how it stands as the moment. There aren’t many shows that successful before even a dress rehearsal has taken place.

Sheridan SmithI had no previous knowledge of Funny Girl apart from People and Don’t Rain on my Parade. Neither of us have ever seen the film, nor any other stage production. I knew it was about the life of Fanny Brice, but I didn’t know anything much about her either. Stephen Sondheim’s lyric “we aren’t the Lunts, I’m not Fanny Brice” was about the sum of it. The real Fanny Brice was a comic chanteuse at the Ziegfeld Follies on and off between the 1910s and the 1930s. Later she was to have a huge radio comedy presence until her death in 1951 – but the show doesn’t get that far in her life. It also ignores her first marriage to Frank White and doesn’t reach her third marriage to impresario and lyricist Billy Rose. Instead, it’s all about her breaking into showbiz by impressing Florenz Ziegfeld, and her relationship with husband number 2, Nicky Arnstein – swindler, racketeer, gambler, con artist, and all-round good egg. He lived until 1965 so actually got to see himself immortalised in this show.

Sheridan Smith and the boys of the ensembleThe original production opened on Broadway in March 1964, just a couple of months after the opening of a not dissimilar musical, Hello Dolly. But whereas Dolly scooped ten of the eleven Tony awards for which it was nominated, Funny Girl missed out on all eight of its nominations. Both shows featured a larger than life female lead that dominates the story and gets all the best songs. It was the Swinging Sixties, but both shows give us a huge dollop of nostalgia. Both shows portray people falling in love and the pitfalls associated therewith. They even each have a song about a parade! And of course both are associated with La Streisand (although Miss Carol Channing is the only Dolly for me.) Having seen both shows, I think where Funny Girl falls down is that there isn’t a big attention-seeking show-off number in the second half, which is the moment where Hello Dolly simply excels. Funny Girl’s best songs are all in the first act so you get a sense of imbalance. As in Gypsy, the song before the interval is a moment of pure theatrical defiance which sends you into the interval bristling with excitement and anticipation for the second act. But it’s a peak that the show never quite reaches again. On reflection, I think if I had been in the selection panel for the 1964 Tony Awards, I would have voted for Dolly too.

Girls of the ensembleBut that’s not in any way to criticise this production because it’s every bit as good as you could possibly have hoped it would be. The ever flexible Menier acting space is in standard Proscenium arch mode, but with a front curtain at a diagonal angle criss-crossing the stage rather than straight across the front – and you’ve never seen a curtain whip into position as quickly as it does at the end of the first act – stand in the way and you’d get concussion. Alan Williams’ band is on great form, playing those catchy show tunes with immense gusto. Lynne Page’s choreography neatly allows the large cast to dance together on what is a very shallow stage without bumping in to one another yet still appearing technically intricate. The show also benefits from having a very funny book, revised by Harvey Fierstein, and many of the songs also have wickedly delightful lyrics. If a Girl isn’t Pretty, You are Woman and I am Man, and Sadie Sadie had me laughing all the way through because of their clever turns of phrase (and also delightful performances). I haven’t heard the song Who Taught her Everything she Knows? for decades and had no idea it was from Funny Girl. I last heard it performed by – would you believe – Larry Grayson and Noele Gordon on the stage of the London Palladium in 1974, so it was fascinating to see how it actually fitted in to a real musical (although I also note that it usually appears in the first act – this production delays it till the second). I was also, erroneously, expecting Second Hand Rose to make an appearance, but it isn’t actually from Funny Girl, it was one of the real Fanny Brice’s hits, way back in 1921.

S SmithI have no doubt that the main reason the show sold out so rapidly was the promise of seeing Sheridan Smith as Fanny. Over the past few years she’s built up an enviable reputation of being the kind of actress who can turn her hand to anything. A pocket-sized powerhouse of warmth and charm, with a fantastic singing voice and a comic delivery to match the best in the business, I really couldn’t wait to see her in the role. And she was superb. From the naïve tomboy of her early years, failing (hilariously) to keep apace with the other dancing Ziegfeld girls, through the headstrong abandonment of her career to follow after Arnstein, to the wiser and sadder old trooper of later years, she always captures that spark of positivity that drives the character on. She’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off, even if the others on stage are really good!

Sheridan Smith and Darius CampbellDarius Campbell plays Arnstein, and although he’s now something of an old hand at the theatre game, this is the first time we’ve seen him on stage, although we’re very familiar with (and fond of) his musical oeuvre. How does that singing voice translate to musical theatre? Incredibly well, as it turns out. He cuts the most imposing figure, his height adding to his stage presence, and his voice – would it be a baritone? – just resonates throughout the auditorium. They really use the “little and large” nature of the couple to great effect, including the delightful wedding photograph and her sneaking out from under his gangly limbs when he tries to get a little jiggy with it.

Sheridan Smith and Joel MontagueI really enjoyed Joel Montague as song and dance man Eddie, lamely trying to get Fanny’s romantic attention, when it was clear he was always only going to be Buttons to her Cinderella. I always like it when a relatively big chap carries off some challenging choreography, and Mr Montague is incredibly light on his feet throughout. Bruce Montague (no relation – at least I don’t think so) plays Ziegfeld with dignity and authority but also a mischievous glint in his eye. You might remember Mr Montague (Senior) as Leonard in Butterflies all those years ago, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood favourites. He’s also one of two cast members who are nearer to their 80th birthdays than their 70th, the other being the excellent Maurice Lane as Mr Keeney, hoofing it with the best of them. Fine examples of how you’re never too old to give a great physical performance.

Funny Girl castThere’s the magnificent triumvirate (if that’s not too male a term – triumfeminate?) of Mrs Strakosh, Mrs Meeker and Mrs Rose Brice, all cunningly playing poker in the corner of the stage, cackling like hens and you wouldn’t trust any one of them an inch. With experienced performers like Gay Soper, Valda Aviks and Marilyn Cutts taking those roles, you know they’re going to give it every inch of oomph it needs, and their performance of If a Girl isn’t Pretty was especially enjoyable. The ensemble of singers and dancers are all first class but I did feel a twinge of sympathy for Matthew Croke and Luke Fetherston having to perform what must be the feyest dancing soldiers routine I’ve seen since the Monty Python Camp Square-Bashing sketch.

Maurice Lane and Darius CampbellIt’s a great show that leaves you with a smile as wide as your arm and makes you want to tap your toes all the way back to London Bridge station. Everyone who booked all those months ago certainly got their reward, and I’d be very surprised if the Savoy transfer doesn’t get extended yet again. And I promise you, you’ll be singing Don’t Rain on my Parade to yourself for days.

Sheridan SP. S. I know the Menier is a charity, but £5 for a programme? That’s a bit toppy isn’t it? Increase the price of the peripherals and you’ll only find people decreasing the size of the voluntary donation when they book in future.

Production photos by Marc Brenner