Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Saturday 19th May, 2012
I’ve seen this Kander and Ebb musical three times now on stage over the years and it still puzzles me. If I didn’t enjoy the score I wouldn’t keep going back. The songs are wonderful, in a Vaudeville style, and the onstage band, dominating the performance space, blare out delight after delight. “All That Jazz” and “Razzle Dazzle” are among the highlights.
The musical is based on a play based on a novel based on real-life newspaper reports of notorious women in Chicago in the 1920s. The action takes place largely in a women’s prison although the Spartan set represents a jazz club where the men, bare-chested in skimpy leather waistcoats seem overdressed compared to the women. The style is Brechtian – scenes are announced, cast members interact with the always visible musical director, and there are elements of Kurt Weill present in the music. It always reminds me of Wedekind’s Lulu plays in its portrayal of women degraded by men, whose only outlet is crime and in particular murder.
The cast currently touring features alumni from television soaps. There is Ali Bastian (formerly of The Bill and Hollyoaks) as Roxie Hart, homicidal adulteress hell-bent on becoming famous, demonstrating her terpsichorean aptitude and playing against type very effectively. Tupele Dorgu, who used to squabble in an underwear factory on Coronation Street, is a leggy, brassy Velma Kelly, and by far the best one in the troupe. Stefan Booth (also off of Hollyoaks) as debonair lawyer Billy Flynn, reveals a deep, smooth crooning voice that is very easy on the ear.
Even though the performance is bursting with energy and the material shot through with humour and catchy songs, I can’t help wondering what it’s all about. As a satire on what people will do to achieve celebrity it has been superseded by reality television and (no) talent competitions. The alienation devices do their job. We are kept at a distance from the characters and do not engage with them emotionally. Therefore, we are expected to consider the events played out before us from an intellectual standpoint. This is where my problem lies. On stage, the characters celebrate their lifestyle, revelling in their ability to corrupt and manipulate the legal process and the malleable media. It’s not a good advertisement for the human race. It is all ironic, of course. But what are we meant to think and/or do about it? What message are we meant to come away with? The Leveson Inquiry springs to mind, showing that these attitudes persist in the world today but on the whole I felt like the little boy watching the naked emperor parade by. Please feel free to enlighten me via the comments box.
At the end, the full house was clapping and cheering. So was I. You cannot help but admire such a high quality performance from a talented and energetic company. On the way out, people were talking about the performers but not the content. I was earwigging the conversation of a group of women who got on my train as they compared notes on the show. They’d enjoyed the showing but nothing was said of the telling. With no moments of real impact, emotional or intellectual, Chicago is a string of Vaudeville numbers, linked by a plot that has no real relevance. The lyrics to “Razzle Dazzle” sum it all up for me. When flash takes precedence over substance, you might be momentarily diverted but ultimately unsatisfied.
I don’t think I’ll see it again. It’s nothing to make a song and dance about.