Tag Archives: Chicago

Jazzed Up

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.

chicago-john-partridge-as-billy-flynn-and-hayley-tamaddon-as-roxie-hart-photo-by-catherine-ashmore

John Partridge and Hayley Tamaddon (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

 


The old razzle dazzle

CHICAGO
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.

But…

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.

But…

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.