The inherent Vaudevillian spark that sizzles through every tap, tune and tease of Chicago is something that the past few decades seem to have gone a little out of their way to try and water down somewhat. Beginning with the revivals of the late 90s both in London and across the pond, ditching the ‘Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville’ moniker in favour of just the Windy City by its lonesome, and the subsequent Rob Marshall film adaptation, which, whilst a hit by any conceivable measure, nevertheless took itself a lot more seriously than an outing featuring such numbers as ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ and ‘Funny Honey’ perhaps ought.
Sure, there was still plenty of fun to be had with the mistresses of Murderess’ Row (particularly Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Oscar-winning turn as Velma Kelly), but in infusing extra drama – namely to beef up the climactic courtroom showdown and infuse extra venom into the antagonistic rivalry between its two leads – Chicago on screen tiptoed further away from the heightened vampy farce of its origins.
Think more Sorkin than Fosse.
Thankfully, the stage production remains mostly unfettered by such toying (streamlined but now-iconic title excision notwithstanding). In fact, Marshall admitted to struggling with how to incorporate so much of the direct-to-audience magic and non-existent fourth wall that Chicago offers in abundance, and it’s here where this latest touring production once again proves the stage and auditorium to be the perfect conduits for a show and story perhaps at its best when channeling the revues and music halls of the past, and laying its tale of murder, manipulation and morbid press fascination in as broad and bullish strokes as possible.
We’re in 1920s prohibition-era Chicago, and young Roxie Hart (Faye Brookes) has just gunned down the man she’s been cheating on well-meaning, slightly down-on-his-luck husband Amos (Joel Montague) with. Her motive? Well, he was walking out on her, of course.
“perhaps at its best when channeling the revues and music halls of the past”
Fast track the young ingenue to the Cook County Jail for women, where she joins fellow recent murderess Velma Kelly (Djalenga Scott) on ‘Murderess Row’, with the promise of a noose waiting for her troubles. But it’s ok, or so we’re told, by the Row’s matriarch-for-hire overseer, Matron ‘Mama’ Morton (pop culture icon Sinitta… yes, that Sinitta), as Cook County apparently haven’t hung a woman in decades.
Plot twist… that’s about the change.
Originally adapted from Maurine Dallas Watkins’ stage play of the same name – inspired itself by actual real life court cases of female assailants acquitted of murder – Chicago has become something of a go-to satire for warnings on the fickle, capricious, oft-manipulated nature of fame and instant stardom, not to mention being pretty much a two-hour song and dance piece on getting away, quite literally, with murder.
As the age of the ‘cult of personality’ threatens to self-implode in a cacophony of Trumps, Johnsons and Prince Andrews, and the idea that fame can be a salve-all or veil to hide behind thankfully erodes away, there’s still plenty of timely, sobering warning shots fired throughout Chicago, most of which are as biting and prescient as they are by dint of their delivery being so consciously heightened and regularly bordering on farcical.
It’s no slight or insult, either; Chicago on stage is a much freer, looser and, yes, sillier affair, and it’s all the more revelrous and enjoyable for it.
It’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, too. For instance, in depicting its sham courtroom trials as, well, a sham, the stage production descends the whole thing into exaggerated, cartoonish reenactments and recollections that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roadrunner cartoon. Where Renee Zellweger’s take on ‘Roxie’ in the film was a soberingly serious affair, here Brookes and the creatives get to imbue it with far more light, shade and buoyancy.
“Chicago on stage is a much freer, looser and, yes, sillier affair, and it’s all the more revelrous and enjoyable for it.”
As said, it’s that Vaudeville element. Numbers that could easily have been staged conventionally ‘bigger’, such as, say, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ or ‘I Can’t Do It Alone’, instead work far better with just the cast, that spotlight, the on-stage band (and oh, what a band they are!) and precious little need for anything more.
It helps that Chicago boasts such a strong supporting company. A superb ensemble carry – at times quite literally – big chunks of the show on their shoulders, and also inject plenty of that other key Chicago ingredient – a sultry physicality and decadent appeal to proceedings. Yes, Chicago is satirical and regularly silly, but it’s darn sexy too (something that again felt strangely absent in its film counterpart).
Faye Brookes takes seminal numbers like ‘Roxie’ and ‘Funny Honey’ and filters them through her loveable, mischievous take on the show’s co-lead. She has stage smarts aplenty, and whilst she doesn’t tear the roof off with belts or soaring refrains, she’s got a suitable lightness of tone, and fits the character to a tee; bulldozing scenes down with her comic timing and force of character alone. Djalenga Scott is all legs, high-kicks and glowering put-downs as a suitably sardonic Velma, and she takes major classics like ‘All That Jazz’ in her impressive, stage commanding stride. She’s the imposing, sensual glue that holds together some of her shared numbers too, including firm favourite ‘Cell Block Tango’, and characterful, neatly-charted duet ‘Class’ with Sinitta.
Elsewhere, Joel Montague tugs on the heartstrings as loveable Amos, getting perhaps the biggest cheer of the night closing out his downbeat Act II solo ‘Mr Cellophane’, whilst B E Wong is supremely watchable and flighty as ersatz reporting do-gooder, Mary Sunshine.
Given the prestige and quality of the music being handled and the terrific work done with that original Fosse and Ebb choreography, it’s a shame that in places – and even with some of its central cast – it’s hard not to feel that some parts of Chicago are, if not coasting, then at least strutting along at a comfortable rhythm.
Some of this may be due to it being a good few months into this, an international tour, and again none of this is true of the phenomenal swings and ensemble, but to say that they carry some numbers and sections of the show is, in some places, a case of understatement.
It doesn’t majorly detract from the overall good time you’ll have with Chicago, though, and the stage remains absolutely the medium of choice through which to experience its funny, biting pastiche of vaudeville good times and fleeting fame both. Featuring what are, without question, some of the best numbers in musical theatre history, winningly performed by its two leads and their entourage in particular, whilst this incarnation may careen perilously close once or twice to its ‘loved one minute, forgotten the next’ credo, Brookes, Hayes and a sinfully good group of gals and guys claw it back with confidence, presenting what remains a sexy, silly, sumptuously fun trip to the clink.
A stunning company bring one of musical theatre’s most sinfully good times back where it belongs, on the stage. Whilst it may occasionally go off the boil, it isn’t long before Brookes, Scott and co. high-kick, funny or Fosse it back to brilliance.