Review: Chicago (touring) Royal Concert Hall Nottingham

In 1975 the iconic, dark and edgy, sexy musical Chicago (based on the play ‘Chicago’ by Maurine Dallas Watkins) was originally named Chicago- a vaudeville revue. The original creative team of John Kander & Fred Ebb (famous for the musical Cabaret and forty years of musical collaboration) produced the piece around the same time that another musical was about to hit the Broadway scene and swamp the Variety headlines and win acres of musical theatre awards – this was the tamer but enormously popular show called – A Chorus Line. It opened five days before Chicago.

At the time Chicago was seen as a success but met with a mixture of varied revues and perhaps seen, retrospectively, as well as before its time, due to the dark nature and perverse humour of its subject and the thrilling choreography and direction by Bob Fosse who dealt in steamy yet stylised minimalist dance movements. It was a style that nobody then was aware of and it was seen as difficult yet fascinating. Chicago the musical was violent and moody and the audience were expected to laugh at people being killed and be sympathetic with the perpetrators whilst, at the same time, imagining they (as an audience) were having a wonderful time at a Broadway show.

A 1996 Broadway revival was choreographed by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse, directed by Walter Bobbie and produced by Barry and Fran Weissler.  A year later and it was a hit on the West End stage too.

Although set in the 1920s Chicago reflected the morality of what was happening in the mid 1970s in the USA and every type of debauchery and scandal that was taking place. For instance, the concept of honouring ‘celebrity out of criminality’!? Scandalous! Who’d have thought that would make a popular musical? Why would anyone want to celebrate the morally bad folk getting away with murder? . In Chicago there is an unreality and a stylisation in the portrayal of the major characters that lends the story a dramatic feel in these stories of corruption and murder. It sensationalises how a guilty party gets away with shooting her lover another more innocent victim hangs for a crime she didn’t commit and celebrates the murderous actions. Yet this was done with such an underlining core of fun and sexy dark humour it worked somehow. Audiences loved it and continue to love it today so much so that it became a soar away success not only on the stage around the world but, also as a film version in 2002.

In musical terms this is a concept musical – not just a story with songs that end a scene followed by another song that ends another scene i.e. a traditional musical. A concept musical has numbers that comment on what is happening in the plot and the combined dance work visually illustrates what the motifs are and doubly demonstrates the character’s motivations in a form that is often a pastiche in order to bring the point across in a theatrical way within pertinent musical and theatrical genres like ragtime or vaudeville.

And so we come to this touring production in which the fantastic band under musical director Andrew Hilton really bring home the hot jazz as they play, literally, centre stage. Their five minute musical  blast at the beginning of act two is worth the ticket price alone.

The hard-working main ensemble give their all and more in the louche song and dance movements that parody, pout and parade with a focus and energy that Bob Fosse and Ann Reinking would be very proud of. The whole twenty strong ensemble work tremendously hard to create the grubby vaudevillian sleazy atmosphere of this prohibition era Chicago. The fantastic ensemble cast includes; Ishmail Aaron, Michelle Andrews, Gabby Antrobus, Delycia Belgrave, Joel Benjamin, Tanisha-Mae Brown, Daniel Clift, Callum Fitzgerald, Emily Goodenough, Billie Hardy, Aaron Jenkins, Liam Marcellino, Theo Reece, Hollie Jane Stephens and Harrison Wilde.

There is no shifting around of set pieces with the quick change of scenes being expressed and manipulated by lighting (design by Ken Billington) and two big ladders either side of the stage. A host of wooden chairs is the limit of any stage furniture and exits and entrances are made on and around the large angled structure that houses the band. The sound is generally good but occasionally words get lost up in the circle and above.

The two female leads of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly are played excellently by Faye Brookes and Djalenga Scott and each are very strong in their dance and vocals. Scott’s strongly executed high kicks should come with a warning pertaining to the possible loss of an eye. Brookes wins our crooked hearts with Funny Honey, and Roxie and The Boys especially. There is a lot of dark humour associated with each character and the actors bring it out in spades.  Their final song and dance Hot Honey Rag is Chicago perfection.

Sinitta Malone as Matron Mama Morton goes for the sultry in her vocals of ‘When You’re Good to Mama’ and choses to style down the authority figure making the part her own with a hint of menace rather than full blown threatening.

Darren Day has a dressed up smart manipulative authority as the bent lawyer Billy Flynn and is assured in his vocal numbers such as Razzle Dazzle and All I Care About (is love). Day really comes into his own in the surreal court scene. Some may prefer their Billy Flynns to be more obviously sleazy but Day keeps his corrupt character’s dodgy nature on the fringes and goes for the scheming showman approach. All I Care About with Billy and the girls is one of many highlights of the show.

Joel Montague brilliantly inhabits Amos, the pathetic husband of murderess Roxie Hart. Amos believes that he is so insubstantial as a human being that he is practically invisible. Montague does a great job with a very plausible character interpretation and wins audible audience sympathy with his song, Mr Cellophane. Most inspired is the choice of Divina De Campo as Mary Sunshine the newspaper reporter who follows the trials of both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and De Campo has a startlingly good singing voice with a high register.

The major song and dance numbers are sexily realised through Walter Bobbie’s slick direction and the sizzling hot choreography. The famous dynamic numbers such as All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango do not disappoint and are counterbalanced with more reflective numbers such as Nowadays. Chicago is still a hot murderously sensual show and deserves to be enjoyed at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall.

Chicago runs until 23rd October.

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