Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Chicago - The Palace Theatre, Manchester

Book: Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Scott Faris
Reviewer: Mathew Nicolls

Oh, Chicago. How much do I love Chicago? A lot. An awful lot. Frankly, it's bombproof, and feels like it's been around forever. This isn't actually the case, however. Bob Fosse's re-teaming with John Kander and Fred Ebb, their follow-up to the smash hit Cabaret (arguably the greatest musical of the 20th century), was met with critical bewilderment, and beaten in the awards season by the same year's A Chorus Line.

It took over 20 years, and a shift in cultural feeling, and Walter Bobbie's superb production, to ensure the world fell in love with it. Although the sleaze of crime, conspiracy and celebrity is rooted in the seamier side of 1920s Chicago, it took celebrity circus events of the '80s and '90s (think O.J Simpson) to allow this glittering black diamond of a show to connect with the public. And what a show.

Bob Fosse's ruthless vaudeville romp actually has a heart as black as coal, a snide sense of humour, and a gleeful lack of moral purpose at its centre. Even more remarkably, it doesn't have one single duff tune, and has some of the snazziest choreography you'll see on a stage all year. It's a simple story. Bored housewife Roxie Hart (Emma Barton) shoots her lover in a crime of passion. Sent to prison, she spurns the affections of her doofus husband, Amos (Adam Stafford), and dreams of a career on the vaudeville stage. But so does fellow inmate Velma Kelly (Twinnie-Lee Moore), and presided over by slick lawyer Billy Flynn (Gary Wilmot) it's a razzle-dazzle fight to the death to emerge as top dog.

I was lucky enough to see the original cast of the West End production (Ute Lemper, Ruthie Henshall, Nigel Planer, Henry Goodman) and the show's 12 year residency in London, and numerous tours - not to mention the Oscar-winning movie - is testament to its appeal. As a show, it's faultless, with a plethora of great showtunes (All That Jazz, Razzle Dazzle, Cell Block Tango etc) and whip-smart lyrics. This production steers clear of the visual excess of its 1970s predecessor, and plays all of its action on a small runway strip in front of the tiered orchestra.

Kander's score romps through rags, jazz, Charleston and tap, whilst Ebb's lyrics are as funny as they are brutal. Ken Billington's superb lighting highlights the sexy ensemble in all their glory, and the ten-piece band, conducted by Garth Hall are superlative, and the true stars of this current tour. Sadly, this time round, it feels like a three star photocopy of a five star original.

Quite frankly, and most disappointingly, none of the leads communicate the charm and charisma needed to carry off their roles. Emma Barton and Twinnie-Lee Moore tick all the boxes, but don't suggest a whisper of danger (they're playing convicted murderers), and are absurdly miscast as two ageing showgirls wondering why life has passed them by. Veteran Gary Wilmot is fine, but vocally underwhelming, and never entirely convinces as the most charming lawyer in a tough city. Adam Stafford's Amos is amiable enough, but doesn't strike much of an emotional chord. Elsewhere, accents wander, the diction isn't always clear, and this touring production's lack of va-va-voom means it pales when compared to its London incarnation (or, indeed, previous tours.)

I would have loved to report that this was as good as it's always been, but, sadly, it isn't. The ensemble are as taut and pneumatic as a chorus girl's garter belt, and give the evening some much needed oomph, but, all told, this has the distinct whiff of a poor relation who has turned up a bit late to the party. If you've never seen it live on stage, you definitely should, but if you like your musicals tight, snazzy, and dripping in energy, then it might be best to give this one a miss this time around. Oh, Chicago, how could you?

Runs until Sat 7th Nov
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