Anyone who’s seen the Oscar-winning 2002 film adaptation of Kander & Ebb’s 1975 musical will find it very faithfully reproduced the spirit and style of the stage version: so why watch it in the West End? Well, any musical that’s been running for over 15 years clearly has legs – and Chicago has tits, ass, butts and abs too, plus a hit-parade of cracking songs and a razor-sharp sense of satire.
Set in Prohibition-era (1920s) Chicago, where gangsters like Al Capone attained the status of folk heroes, the plot is a very modern tale of two media-savvy murderesses, Velma Kelly (Rachel McDowall) and Roxie Hart (Sarah Soetart), both of whom start the show more concerned about profiting from their crimes by cashing in on their notoriety than saving their necks from the noose.
The world of Chicago is selfish, amoral and opportunistic – newspapers will do anything to get a story, and the female prisoners at Cook County Jail will do anything to give them one. Having failed to get her mild-mannered mechanic husband Amos (Tony Timberlake) to take the rap for shooting her boyfriend Fred Casely, chorus-girl Roxie is thrown into prison and has to learn to survive and thrive.
Cook County is dominated by two women: prison Matron “Mama” Morton (played with stately smoulder by Jasna Ivir) and current queen of the tabloids, Velma Kelly: Rachel McDowall channels Catherine Zeta-Jones’s screen turn in this role, in the best possible way, flirting and tapdancing her way through an attention-grabbing, high-energy performance. Roxie, as the new girl, soon finds that in order to turn her luck around, she’ll need to charm Mama topple Velma – and find $5,000 to get fast-talking lawyer Billy Flynn to take her case.
Under Billy’s influence, and strengthened by the sunshine of media attention, Roxie soon blossoms from a vaudeville wannabe into a full-blown diva, taking Velma’s crown and rejecting her suggestion of forming a showbiz double-act when they both get out. It’s assumed they’ll get off, because Cook County hasn’t executed a female prisoner in its history – but then a fellow prisoner on Murderesses’ Row is hanged, and the game both girls are playing suddenly becomes horribly real. Instead of fighting one another for headlines, the girls have to start fighting for their lives, and the burning question becomes not “who’s on top?” but “who’s for the drop?”
I’m not going to spoil the ending for anyone who doesn’t know it already, but suffice to say that it’s a clever twist entirely in keeping with the narrative arc and satirical themes of the musical – and that the grand finale is a real show-stopper you won’t want to miss. Sarah Soetart as Roxie Hart and Raza Jaffrey as Billy Flynn are a great double-act, and it’s interesting to see how the age difference between Velma and Roxie creates a different dynamic between the two female leads: in the film, Zeta-Jones as Velma is older and wiser, Renee Zellweger as Roxie wide-eyed and in awe of her. In this production, the ages are reversed, so Soetart as Roxie has about 10 years on the younger McDowall, but this adds to the credibility of her marriage to Amos, and to her desperation for one last chance of stardom, terrified of being washed-up and left on the shelf (or in the cell) forever.
Bob Fosse’s acrobatic, stylised choreography and William Ivey Long’s costume design for the cast and chorus leave very little to the imagination, and, by necessity, Chicago has one of the best-looking and most athletic casts of any West End show currently running: fishnets and bare chests leave the actors nowhere to hide. So it’s rather disappointing – though appropriate to the “it’s all a show, nothing is real” ethos of the musical – that Chicago essentially has no set, and only a narrow strip of performance area in front of the onstage bandstand.
Instead of being housed in a pit in front of the stage, the orchestra is on throughout, which is visually rather distracting, and only dramatically justified at one point just after the interval, where the musicians play the Entr’acte in the style of a band of the period, swinging, synchronised brass section and all. Lovely moment though this is, it still doesn’t make up for the fact that the whole show, lacking the gorgeous, expensive and inventive sets West End musicals have become famous for, looks rather cheap, lacking spectacle and “razzle-dazzle”, and it’s rather harder to see where your ticket money has gone than if you were watching Les Mis or Phantom.
For this, as well as the rather pointless reveal that soft-hearted reporter Mary Sunshine is played by a man (if you want this "gasp" moment to work, don't cast someone who's 6'2"), Chicago loses a star, because a good set is a huge and important part of any musical not being mounted at a Fringe venue on a shoestring. For everything else – songs, story, performances and sheer sass and vim, it gets the full five.
Name of Show: Chicago
Playwright/Book: Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
Composer/Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Premiered: 3 June 1975 (Broadway)
This Production Opened: 7 November 2011
Tweet: Roxie & Velma are murderers on Death Row in 1920s Chicago. Will lawyer Billy Flynn's all-singing all-dancing razzle-dazzle get them off?
Synopsis: When chorus-girl Roxie Hart shoots her lover Fred and fails to get sappy, adoring husband Amos to take the blame, she's tossed into Cook County Jail, where wardress “Mama” Morton and media darling murderess Velma Kelly rule the roost. But when Roxie gets superstar lawyer Billy Flynn on her side, her star starts to rise, and the papers can't get enough of her. Velma's jealous of the new kid on the prison block, and plots to bring her down a peg or two. Roxie seems guaranteed to get off - until one of her fellow inmates is convicted and hanged, the first female prisoner to be executed in the jail's history. Suddenly Roxie and Velma are fighting not just for the spotlight, but for their very lives … and this means they'll have to bury their differences and work together for once.
- "Cell Block Tango" - five female murderers tells the story of their crimes
- "We Both Reached for the Gun" - Roxie plays Billy Flynn's ventriloquist's dummy as he tells her what to say to the press
- Soft-hearted reporter Mary Sunshine is revealed to be played by a man (though this is pretty obvious from the start).
Why See It: Chicago boasts the tightest abs and longest legs in any West End show, all on display through fishnets, sheer shirts and flirty skirts. You'll also enjoy a stunning roll-call of fantastic tunes including All That Jazz, When You're Good To Mama, Mister Cellophane and Razzle Dazzle, which make its social commentary on murder and media manipulation sizzle as well as bite.
Caveat: If you're a fan of sets, the onstage orchestra and almost total lack of set otherwise gives a rather cheap “black box” look to the staging of this production.
- Chicago is one of the longest running productions in the West End - 15 years so far.
NEW JOINT. SAME JAZZ. Having snatched the crown of the longest running American musical from A Chorus Line, the London production of Chicago is at its new home, the Garrick Theatre. This universal tale of fame, fortune and. all that jazz, recounts the kiss-and-tell tale of chorus girl Roxie Hart who kills her lover; her rivalry with glamorous double-murderer Velma Kelly and their slick lawyer, Billy Flynn's attempts to keep his clients from Death Row. From the unforgettable first blast of All That Jazz right through to the last note of its sizzling jazz-drenched score and from the sensuous choreography inspired by the legendary Bob Fosse to its sensational performers, Chicago is a musical phenomenon like no other.
Garrick Theatre2 Charing Cross Road
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2H 0HH
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes
The company of CHICAGO. © Catherine Ashmore.