Surprisingly, there is a huge amount of ‘razzle dazzle’ left in this show. Fundamentally unchanged since its 1996 Broadway revival, the truly wonderful Kander & Ebb score is supported by top quality dance and some amazing acting performances (albeit mingled with a couple of elements that belie a lack of freshness).
This is a dance-led show, as a quick glance down the cast bios will show. Bob Fosse did the original choreography in 1975, and the 1977 Roxie Hart, Ann Reinking, returned to the lead role in 1996 and choreographed the version that is still played today, heavily based on his immediately recognisable work. The dancing is still electrifying, and wowed the audience – I was wincing at watching jumps directly into splits from the proximity of the second row, and the Americans in front of us certainly appreciated the muscle definition on some of the male dancers as they strutted their stuff. This may be a tried and tested routine, but it is clear that the lack of an update is due to its continuing appeal rather than any hint of comfort or laziness.
Possibly this combination of Kander, Fosse & Ebb disables me slightly from fair judgement. One of my earliest musical memories is of a battered old cassette of Cabaret that used to be wheeled out on car journies (my parents must have had a very well-concealed giggle whenever my sister and I in pre-school years would merrily sing along to Two Ladies). I didn’t see the movie until much later, but the combination of darkness, history, a formidable set of songs that stood alone so easily and a perfect performance from Liza Minelli made it my favourite movie musical ever. There are many differences between Cabaret and Chicago, but the characteristic vaudeville-style staging of bowler-hatted women dancing on wooden chairs, combined with knowing lyrics that shamelessly expose human weaknesses works just as well here in 1920s Chicago as it did in Weimar Germany.
Anyway, we all know the storyline and the style of this tale, having seen Catherine Zeta-Jones clean up at the Oscars in 2003 for her great Velma Kelly, whilst Richard Gere failed to prove that he could dance and Queen Latifah made the role of Mama Morton her own. The film didn’t deviate far from the Broadway production, cutting a few songs and tweaking around the edges only.
The difference with the stage show was largely due to the prominence of the fantatstic orchestra – they were sat in tiers at the back of the stage and the conductor was incorporated well into the performance. The whole band held the stage at the end of the night with all of the audience enthusiastically clapping along after the bows.
There is only a small stage space at The Cambridge, but every inch was put to good use by a great company that were giving it their all. One of the problems with this show will always be the regular cast rotations. This is inevitable for such a long runner, but does leave an air of the unknown when booking tickets. The cast that I saw was largely fantastic – with a stand-out Roxie played by understudy Rachel Muldoon – but the roles of Velma Kelly and Mama Morton were played by the regular actresses credited in the programme, who gave a slight impression that they were just going through the motions. Muldoon, however, was sassy and sexy, showing off a huge acting an dancing talent, putting the older and more experienced actors alongside her to shame as she made the most of her moment in the spotlight.
Elements of this production felt like a large audition piece. Those in regular lead roles often return after breaks from the show, and here felt like parts of the furniture for the newer, keener participants to parade their talents around. Perhaps the dated feel of the 1996 costumes plus the basic black set (reminiscent of an old, dusty rehearsal room) created this impression, but it was certainly sealed by a roll-call of names during the final bows that identified each member of the cast by name. Whilst certain performers appeared to have given up hope of or desire for a next step on the career ladder, the excitement and ambition of those that have possibly not been there as long shone through. There are no details of dates when each individual debuted on the show in the programme, so I may be wrong here, but there was definitely an impression of a mix of settled and transient cast populations.
In all, some truly excellent material exploited to 90% of its effect. This production is still well worth a look, but seeing it performed at its peak must have been a really exceptional treat. Maybe next time.
Discounted tickets for Chicago are regularly available at TKTS on Leicester Square (see Highly Recommended Links). We arrived at the booth at 6pm and managed to get £62 face value tickets for the 8pm performance in second row of the stalls for £33 each.