IT was more than 20 years ago that this revival of Kander and Ebb’s musical opened on Broadway.
By the time it got to London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1997 I was working in Docklands, so was able to see not only the original cast, studded with stars Lemper, Henshall, Goodman (Henry not Len) and Planer, but also some of the understudies, who, as usual in big West End productions, are as good as, if not better than, the big names. Natasha Barnes has proved she is every bit as talented as Fanny Brice as Sheridan Smith in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Funny Girl: I have seen both, and they are each superb in the same role. Similarly, when a big West End show takes to the road and visits local towns and cities, the new casting process ensures that the very best, most capable people fill the roles, sometimes with a nod to minor celebrity, but always with the main focus on the highest talent.
On this tour there are three such nods; Hayley Tamaddon and John Partridge from a couple of Soaps and X Factor winner Sam Bailey, but all three have proved their ability in musical theatre or the club circuit, and the other two principles, played by Sophie Carmen-Jones and Neil Ditt, have Musical careers to be proud of without the need for such celebrity.
Chicago, at least in this incarnation, with Fosse’s choreography lovingly restored by Ann Reinking and curated on this tour by Gary Chryst, is primarily an ensemble production, with most of the cast remaining somewhere on stage most of the time, lurking in their mainly black, very revealing, racy, outfits. The centre of the stage is occupied by a large, multi-level band box, with every musician on display, and in these days of recorded backing tracks and uncredited musicians, how lovely it is to see such a magnificent band at the centre of proceedings, with animated and gymnastic conductor Ben Atkinson adding panache and style.
Carmen-Jones is every bit as much a star as any of the familiar names, bringing a powerful dynamism to Velma Kelly. She gets straight into the sleazy 1920s underworld style with All That Jazz, and her vocal performance, particularly in her duets, Nowadays with Tamaddon and Class with Bailey, is pure perfection. As Roxie Hart,Tamaddon is a great partner to her vocally, perhaps with a slightly lighter voice, although still able to show good variation, especially in Funny Honey, and really turns on the emotion when giving evidence at her trial. Bailey proves herself to be so much more than just a singer, as her much-publicised previous job of prison officer would surely have hindered rather than helped her performance as 1920s prison matron Mama Morton. Her voice is wonderful, with great power when needed, as in When You’re Good to Mama, but with beautiful subtlety too, especially in Class, with Carmen-Jones. Roxie’s husband Amos is a small role, with one big number, but Neil Ditt inhabits the part with great honesty, building that one number, Mr Cellophane from a gentle ballad to a huge showstopper, as well as making the very most of his final line.
The only mild disappointment amongst the big names for me was John Partridge – a veteran of the musical stage, great on his feet and with a lovely voice, but perhaps because of his accent, or perhaps just having a bad day, he did not quite fulfill the expectation I had, based purely on what I have seen before, and on what the onstage build-up demands. Yes, his singing was accurate and his dancing slick, but his voice seemed a little hard to understand, and I felt he stressed the manipulative side of Billy Flynn more than his charm and charisma, although this should take nothing away from his singing performance in his solo numbers, and his acting in They Both Reached For The Gun, with Tamaddon as the best ventriloquist’s dummy I have ever seen in this show, and Partridge having no problem holding the long note at the end.
Special mentions in this already top-notch ensemble are also due to A D Richardson, who as journalist Mary Sunshine hits her top notes with great confidence given her revelation at the court and Francis Foreman, whose portrayal of Fred during Roxie’s trial is a showcase of physical comedy. When not playing supporting roles, as fellow prisoners, policemen, journalists, etc., the ensemble is always there – with soaring harmonies in the choruses and tight, slick, completely together, brave, physical dancing that Mr Fosse himself would have been proud of.
The highly talented and thoroughly entertaining onstage band would be enough to fill an evening on its own, but add a finely-honed, sassy company of world-class singers, actors and dancers, the sexy, sultry, suggestive choreography of Bob Fosse, the costumes of netting, stocking and barely anything more, and a few select stars and there is something in this show for everyone.
Footnote: Chicago also visits Plymouth Theatre Royal from Monday 18th to Saturday 23rd July.