Tag Archives: Kander and Ebb

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.


John Partridge and Hayley Tamaddon (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


Where There’s Not A Will


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 26th November, 2013


Due to illness, Mr Will Young will not be appearing.”

A cry goes up and fills the auditorium will dismay.  So many people have booked tickets precisely because Mr Will Young is top of the bill.  But that’s live theatre for you.  Another aspect of live theatre is that such an eventuality allows the understudy to step up and have his moment in the limelight.  Enter Simon Jaymes who is more than up to the rigours of the challenge.  In fact, without the star player, I am reminded that the Emcee is an incidental role.  He and his raucous troupe of chorus girls (and chorus boys in this production) function as something of a Greek Chorus, providing musical interludes and commentary on the main action.

The main action concerns the arrival of American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Rawle) in 1930s Berlin.  He is a not-so-innocent abroad and, having rented a room, meets and has flings with all sorts.  Rawle is the most ‘normal’ (perhaps ‘grounded’ is a better term) figure on stage.  We encounter the other characters and Berlin through his eyes.  He is the ‘straight’ man, so to speak, although Bradshaw (suggested by the real-life adventures of Christopher Isherwood) evidently climbs both sides of the ladder.  Rawle’s rich singing voice is always a treat and he brings an easy, up-for-it-ness to the role.

Bradshaw finds himself in the KitKat Club, a venue named after not one but two chocolate bars (not really) where he meets the redoubtable Sally Bowles.  Siobhan Dillon imbues the divine Miss B with an irrepressible Englishness and energy.  Her musical numbers are the highlights for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Lyn Paul but I’m afraid her German landlady, Fraulein Schneider, has more than a hint of Liverpool to her.  I keep expecting her to turn out to be Frau Johnson in a production of Blut Brüder.

Her paramour Herr Schulz is sweetly portrayed by Linal Haft, warbling about a pineapple and keeping his kopf in the sand about the rising tide of anti-Semitism all around him as Nazism infects the minds of the German populace.  Director Rufus Norris knows we know what happens historically and within the story.  He makes the rise of the Reich ironic – the Emcee is a satirist.  In Tomorrow Belongs to Me for example, rather than trying to catch us out with an invitation to sing along, here the Emcee is shown as a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of his chorines in traditional German costume.  The Nazis tug at the patriotism of the people, making it easier to pick out ‘others’ as scapegoats for the country’s problems.  (Cut to the news today where our own PM is employing exactly the same tactic, playing to people’s fears about immigration rather than giving us any facts).

Cabaret not only reminds us that terrible things happened, it is also a stark warning against the resurgence of the right wing.  The show ends with the chorus, who haven’t been wearing very much more than leather shorts and straps anyway, naked and vulnerable, clawing against a wall.  The satirists and ‘deviants’ of the KitKat Club have been rounded up and taken to the showers…  It’s the most downbeat and chilling ending in musical theatre.

I always forget how funny Joe Masteroff’s script is, and Kander & Ebb’s score, owing a lot to Brecht & Weill, is always great to hear.  Rufus Norris gives the show a sharper, more aggressive tone, reinvigorating the piece and redoubling its power to shock.

So put down your knitting, your book and your ipod and catch the production on tour; with or without Mr Will Young, you’re in for a thoroughly engaging and entertaining evening.

PS.  Get well soon, Will.


The old razzle dazzle

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.