The longest running musical on Broadway, Chicago has once again returned to London’s West End. Initially a 1926 play by Chicago journalist Maureen Dallas Watkins that was based on a string of incredible true stories she had covered in years before, Chicago became the Kander and Webb musical we know and love almost half a century later. Originally premiering in 1975 at the 46th Street Theatre in a production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, the story takes place at Cook County Jail, and follows two female convicts, Roxy Heart (Sarah Soetaert) and Velma Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle) through their crimes, their time in jail and their subsequent sentencings.
The main attraction, of course, is Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as the charismatic lawyer/showman Billy Flynn. There to pull in the crowds, he of course has the acting chops to pull off the role, but he just isn’t a singer, nor is he much of a dancer. He appears to fumble through numbers, and a richer, stronger voice would’ve doubled the thrill of songs like Razzle Dazzle. His charm and style almost fill the gap his voice creates, but it isn’t quite enough. But we must cut him some slack, as his castmates Soetaert and Gabrielle as Hart and Kelly are outstanding. They slink around with felinity and cunning, and embody the femininity and sexuality of the show. Stoetaert is memorably funny, while Gabrielle is fierce and steadfast. Paul Rider steals the audience’s hearts as Amos Hart as he performs the classic Mister Cellophane. The accompanying cast are tight as a drum, and famous tunes like Cell Block Tango are thrillingly good.
However, something about the production feels tired and out of date. The music and lyrics feel as original and inimitable as ever, but the staging has been left in the 1970s. The original set design by John Lee Beatty takes up most of the space, cramming the cast on to the front of the stage. Such huge numbers like All That Jazz and Roxie deserve more room, confining them gives the production an amateur feel. Similarly, the Bob Fosse-style choreography could use a twenty-first century update. The whole thing feels limited, and as a result the show becomes underwhelming. It lacks the pizazz of the other large-scale shows with the same prestigious name that Chicago holds, and when I imagine what the show could be, would they let go of the archaic structure of the original production, I’m sorry that this what we’ve been given.
Packed full of the brilliant and classic songs we all know, fans of Chicago will no doubt enjoy this new production. Sadly, adhering to a familiar format that has gone mostly unchanged for the past 40 years makes it feel dated and two-dimensional. It’s a shame – this is a show that deserves more.
Chicago is booking at the Phoenix Theatre until October 2018
Photo: Tristram Kenton