CHICAGO The Musical
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 12th December, 2016
I’ve seen this Kander and Ebb musical two or three times before and have always come away wanting. In the past I have found the characters and their actions reprehensible – this still holds true but I think this time, with this touring production, I am an older and I hope wiser man. I appreciate now the vaudevillian setting of the piece, not merely as an alienation device (we’re not meant to like these people) but as a format in itself. The story is presented as a series of vaudeville numbers in a range of styles. The (excellent) jazz orchestra dominates the space. There is no concession to scenery or much to costume. It’s a performance about performance, as murderess Roxie Hart rehearses for her court appearance. More than that, it’s a satire about how we as a society afford notoriety to the worst kinds of people. Criminals, liars, cheats and manipulators – these are portrayed as attractive, by sheer force of the actors’ talent. But the format keeps us at a distance from the characters and we must remember to see them for what they truly are.
The show gets off to a cracking start with Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma Kelly, a sultry siren writhing her way through the iconic All That Jazz. Ann Reinking’s choreography is as sharp and sensual as Fosse would have intended. Hayley Tamaddon is an indefatigable firecracker as Roxie, with her eye on the main prize: fame and fortune. Every move she makes, every note she sings, is perfectly in character. As her hard-done-by husband, Neil Ditt attracts our sympathy – Amos is the only moral character in the piece but in this world of topsy-turvy morality, he is weak and ineffectual, while swanky hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn thrives. As Flynn, John Partridge is in his element with his matinee idol looks and his belter of a voice – despite all the scantily clad females on show, his are the best pair of lungs! Soul legend Mica Paris looks and sounds at home as the corrupt prison matron Mama Morton – her introductory number is a highlight of the night. Also impressive is the Cell Block Tango and Velma and Mama bemoaning the lack of Class. “The whole world’s gone low-brow,” they sing. Ain’t that the truth!
There is energetic support from a crack chorus, including a surprising soprano from A D Richardson’s Mary Sunshine and Francis Foreman cuts a dash as Roxie’s ill-fated lover, Fred.
This is Kander and Ebb’s strongest score – the tunes keep on coming. It is also their strongest social comment. Although the play is set in 1920s, gangster-run Chicago, it is all too relevant today, when the media is complicit in the rise of some of the worst ogres humanity has to offer (I’m looking at you, BBC and Farage, and at Trump). Criminals and undesirables don’t just become famous these days; they get elected to office!
My applause is not for the characters but for the performers. Chicago is an unusually intelligent musical, probably the best Brechtian show that Brecht and Weill didn’t write. So rouge your knees and get down to the New Alexandra for a lively alternative to the usual Christmas fare.