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A CurtainUp London Review
Opening in 1997, the revived, in Britain, Chicago is the longest running American musical in the West End, enduring for just under 15 years. Because of its strong dance and music elements, (like Phantom of the Opera for other reasons) Chicago can draw a non English speaking audience.
Ruthie Henshall who played Roxie Hart in the original West End revival is seen in this production in the cameo role as Matron 'Mama' Morton. Josefina Gabrielle, who now plays vaudevillian and murderess Velma Kelly and opens the show with "All That Jazz", also has played Roxie Hart in the West End. For years I remember the image of Ute Lemper as Velma with legs up to her armpits dominating the Adelphi Theatre in The Strand where the revived Chicago led its charmed life.
With their legs akimbo, the beautiful leggy inmates of Cook County Jail excel as they describe the crimes that have led to their incarceration in "Cell Block Tango". They sit on chairs with their knees as far apart as extreme male spread on the London Underground. "He had it coming!" is the refrain. Later while Roxie asks Amos for his help, three male dancers in bowlers bent over, paw the ground like impatient horses. The male dancers give way to gyrating women as Roxie's pleas get more desperate.
Cuba Gooding, Jr is the first celebrity Billy Flynn in London, the lawyer who takes on Roxie's case in a part which owes more to great acting than superb singing voice but his tap dancing is a treat as is his warm and charming personality. However I would book him into some singing lessons if I were a producer of this show. The original 1926 book was based on a journalist's experiences as to how to manipulate a jury and Billy Flynn is the expert coach as long as he is paid well. This role is an interesting contrast to Gooding as OJ Simpson on the other side of the law in the recent television drama.
We see the Hungarian girl Hunyak (Emma Harris) get the death penalty because she won't play the game of asking for mercy but insists on her refrain of "Not guilty". She may also have been the victim of a system which discriminated against those whose English was inadequate to understand and explain their actions.
Josefina Gabrielle excels in the commanding part of Velma Kelly, she has a strong singing voice, super stage presence, assured dance skills and, the essential requirement for Velma, great legs.
Roxie's part is taken by Belgian, Sarah Soetaert whose ditsy blonde image occasionally makes her seem an innocent. She also has a blonde IQ as she fails to recognize that her "not guilty" verdict is more important than her celebrity status. "You are some dumb, common criminal." says Billy. Paul Rider convinces as downtrodden Amos Hart in his standout number "Mr Cellophane Man" which has the audience "ahhing" in sympathy.
I could have happily done without the "Right Said Fred" "I'm Too Sexy For My Shirt" black net see through tops for the men which are so 1990s. When the police officers and the judge appear as toned and muscled, bare chested and wearing just a waistcoat, it is frankly silly. This male cast is so built they must spend many hours each day in the gym.
I thought the casting of 6 feet 3 Chris Warner Drake as Fred Casely unwise as he is called on to double up on many other parts after his murder and his height makes him unmistakable. I would have chosen a less obtrusive actor in this role. Mary Sunshine (AD Richardson) 's secret surprise isn't particularly convincing and I wonder what the 1926 playwright Maurine Watkins would have made of how she is portrayed in the stage productions.
But these are small quibbles for a show where the choreography is just thrilling. There is so much to look at, it is all so inventive and expressive and age has not dimmed it.
For New York reviews of Chicago and the complete song list and more background here
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Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse
Original Production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse
Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr, Josefina Gabrielle, Sarah Soetaert, Ruthie Henshall, and Paul Rider.
With: AD Richardson, Michelle Antrobus, Natalie Bennyworth, Nicola Coates, Frances Dee, Zoe Gappy, Emma Harris, Chelsea Labadini, Joanna Rennie, Abramo Ciullo, Francis Foreman, Luke Jarvis, Matt Krzan, Charles Ruhrmund, Todd Talbot, Callum Macdonald, Chris Warner Drake, and Matthew Wesley.
Original Choreography by Anne Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse
Original New York Production directed by Walter Bobbie
Recreation of Original Choreography by Gary Chryst
Recreation of Original Direction by Tania Nardini
Resident Director: Stacey Haynes
Music Director: Ian Townsend
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Supervising Music Director: Rob Fisher
Orchestrations: Ralph Burns
Original Sound Design: Rick Clarke
Sound Design recreated by Matt Grounds
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7615
Booking to 6th October 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th April 2018 performance at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0JP (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)
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