BWW Review: CHICAGO, Phoenix Theatre
Chicago's hit West End revival - which featured a constant revolving door of big names - closed in 2012 after almost 15 years. Now, it returns with the requisite stunt casting (Cuba Gooding Jr), but also with a cast of triple-threat stalwarts who illustrate the enduring strengths of this whip-smart, black-hearted musical.
Thematically, John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1975 show about Jazz Age murderesses just can't seem to go out of style. If anything, we're more celebrity-obsessed than ever, and the muddying of institutions like our judicial system and the media with spin and "fake news" has reached alarming levels. Mary Sunshine ain't got nothing on Fox News.
Yes, this latest incarnation, which Tania Nardini has based closely on Walter Bobbie's 1997 Broadway revival, is something of a time capsule: the once-shocking lingerie-led costuming, the stripped-back staging, and, of course, Anne Reinking's preservation of Bob Fosse's choreography (re-created here by Gary Chryst) - isolations, jazz hands and pelvic thrusts all present and correct.
Yet played well, it's still electrifying: the cool genius of equating performative legal wranglings with showbusiness, and then playing the terrifying absurdity of that through stylised vaudevillian performance. Deliberate disconnections in the movement, in particular, are highly effective at communicating a queasily off-kilter society.
And then, of course, we have that still rare thing in musical theatre: drama led, nay dominated by women. Rich, complex women at that, who deploy feminine guises with steely calculation - wide-eyed damsel, sultry vamp, reformed sinner - as a means of survival. It's the only source of power available to them.
A trio of Chicago veterans are on fine form here. Ruthie Henshall, a past Roxie and Velma, completes the set, revelling in the androgynous swagger of on-the-take prison warden Mama Morton. She adds edge to her always fine vocals, and is particularly strong opposite Josefina Gabrielle in the bitter lament "Class".
Gabrielle (a former Roxie) wonderfully conjures Velma's hard-bitten vaudevillian heritage; she's always hunting for an audience or an angle. She's superb in two bravura sequences - previewing her court tactics, and attempting to sell Roxie on a double act that's now one (murdered) participant short - and differentiates clearly between the real Velma and her gleaming shell.
Returning Roxie Sarah Soetaert is similarly adept at slipping into different guises. She shows how her felonious chorine learned to exaggerate the baby-blonde daffiness when it worked to her advantage, and has her power claimed by men via an eerily convincing puppet act in "We Both Reached for the Gun"; best of all, she makes the audience complicit during a rivetingly intimate "Roxie".
All three women, as well as Paul Rider's heart-breaking sad clown Amos, A. D. Richardson's operatic hack Mary and a tightly drilled ensemble, are given a fine showcase by this stripped-back staging, and demonstrate the power of musical theatre storytelling merely via excellent vocals, movement and characterisation.
In contrast, Gooding - whose career was revitalised by another courtroom drama, The People v. O.J. Simpson - is likeable, but technically exposed. His voice is already alarmingly hoarse, meaning the songs are a reach and he throws away gags, and his dancing is more eager than precise.
The boyish enthusiasm, too, is an odd fit for world-weary lawyer Billy Flynn. But it's hard not to get swept up in it when Gooding emerges from a nest of feathered fans with a beatific smile, or has a delighted go at Charleston or a brief moonwalk.
Ken Billington's lighting is effective throughout, and the Ian Townsend-directed band is in fine form, getting a welcome showcase at the opening of Act 2. Having the band on stage also makes sense of the minimal production, keeping the show close to its vaudeville roots and making it a neat fit for The Phoenix Theatre.
It's perhaps lacking the bite needed to really rival these oh-so-cynical times, but its lethal wit, shrewd drama and killer tunes mean it's still a dark pleasure to have this razzle-dazzle winner back in town.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton