Murder, greed and exploitation – all those things we hold near and dear. So opens Kander and Ebb’s look at the merry murderesses of Chicago. Though set in a jazz-soaked 1920s, the obsession with fame and the cult of celebrity could easily be today. The media manipulation and spin an uncanny precursor of current culture. The original 1975 production suffered mixed reviews, and it wasn’t until its subsequent revival on Broadway in 1996, and the following year in London, that the show really achieved success. Perhaps it was just ahead of its time.
Inspired by the real life 1924 trials of two Chicago murderesses, Kander and Ebb set out to explore the notion that the criminal system itself if nothing short of a Vaudeville performance, the accused and their lawyers nothing less than performers on a stage.
It’s a concept that works well, while the crimes may be abhorrent they aren’t the focus of the drama. Instead we look at the lengths that truth can be stretched to sell a story.
Often a touring version of a West End musical is a slimmed down version, but here we get the full works, every move indecipherable from the long-running London and Broadway versions.
Walter Boobbie’s original direction (recreated on tour by Scott Faris) makes full use of the Vaudevillian concept, the ensemble on stage throughout, introducing numbers and acting almost like a Greek Chorus before springing into life to take part in the sensuous choreography.
Alongside Kander and Ebb’s music and lyrics, it is perhaps the choreography that defines this show. Anne Reinking’s choreography, in the style of her mentor Bob Fosse, exudes passion and lust. Here not only is every foot in perfect step, so is each finger and hand, as movements synchronise into a perfect whole.
Stepping into the spotlight owing to the indisposition of Hollyoaks’ Ali Bastian, Chloe Ames impresses as Roxy Hart. It’s an assured performance that hits every spot and note. A mix of vulnerability and icy cool detachment, this is one woman you wouldn’t want to cross. As fellow murderess Velma Kelly, Tupele Dorgu is mesmerising, both singing and dancing up a storm. There’s real depth to her Velma, a quick wit but also a darker side that grabs the attention. Jamie Baughan as weak-willed Amos really never stands a chance against these two and his heartfelt rendition of Mr Cellophane perfectly captures his lot.
There’s also an impressive performance from Stefan Booth’s Billy Flynn, the wily lawyer turned ultimate showman. Booth turns in a vocal performance of surprising power and range that charms both the jailbirds and the audience. As prison matron Mamma Morton though, Bernie Nolan sings beautifully but seems somewhat miscast, a bit too clean cut to squeeze out the required innuendo from the lyrics of When You’re Good To Mama.
Nolan’s somewhat underplayed performance though is the only weak note in this on-form production. From Adrian Kirk’s energetic onstage brass infused band, to the black clad ensemble shimmying across the stage, to the powerful vocal performance, this is a Chicago that is hard not to fall in love with. One to certainly serve time with.
Originally written for The Public Reviews