Chicago is one of the “big” musicals – we all know a few songs from it, and you probably know more than you think. The book is from 1975 (based on the 1926 play, which was based on contemporary court cases) and while it in many ways feels very modern there are a couple of jokes that are way past retirement. On two occasions the punchline is a man taking a male lover (It’s 2016. It’s the musical theatre. We should have got used to men who are attracted to men by now.) The other is a female presenting character is outed (through ripping off of wig and dress) as male towards the end of act two. It adds nothing but a cheap joke and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s not needed when there are some fantastic jokes, like “screwing around’s like fooling around except you don’t get dinner”.
There is very little set to speak of – the band take up much of the stage. It’s good to see them; as Woking lacks a permanent orchestra pit they are often hidden away backstage. And there are a few ladders. Staging is done with chairs and the steps of the orchestra stand, which succeeds in giving the feel of a vaudeville show. The band get a chance to show off a bit in the Entr’acte of act two, and at the end. That brings them applause that they richly deserve, and I wish other bands had the same opportunity. The brass, wind and banjo band, along with conductor/musical director Leon Charles, aren’t above hamming it up and are an integral part of the action.
Billy Flynn is my favourite lawyer from the world of musical theatre (ok, there’s not that much choice). His opening number may give law graduates an idealised view of the profession -most lawyers don’t get their own dancing girls with fans. He doesn’t care for expensive things, which is handy if you’re a legal aid criminal lawyer; all he cares about is love. Love of justice, love of legal procedure, and physical love ain’t so bad either. He’s a great character in the tradition of slightly sleazy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lawyers. One day he’ll learn that the Ol’ Razzle Dazzle is no substitute for familiarity with statute and precedents, but today is not that day.
Billy is played by John Partridge, formally of the parish of Walford. His fellow Albert Square alumna Jessie Wallace plays Mama Morton. Both are brilliant – they act well and sing well, with a lot of character. Jessie gets a huge cheer at the end, and it is well deserved. It was a packed theatre on a Monday night and I don’t think it would be that way without the soap stars. But all more than pull their weight and deserved their places in the cast. Hayley Tamaddon (formerly of Emmerdale) plays Roxy, one of the two starring murderesses. She is a shining light. Singing, dancing, acting, comic timing … she’s got it all. Every moment she was on stage was a joy to watch. She made a manipulative murderer adorable and likeable, without seeming to try. Sophie Carmen-Jones plays the other murderess, Velma. More hard-nosed than Roxy, her character is less likeable, but is played and sung to perfection. Tonight I think her microphone let her down as at times she wasn’t quite loud enough. That aside, she sang beautifully and danced like a demon.
The costumes are … skimpy. With the men of the chorus in nothing but tight trousers and leather waistcoats and the women in lingerie, the fabric budget for the production must have run into the tens of pounds. I didn’t know quite where to look, so I hired some opera glasses to make sure. The chorus are tight, and not just in the trouser department. Every move, every line, is spot on. There are no set changes, no costume changes (so Kerry Spark bangs his gavel as the judge in a most unjudicial skintight, see-through mesh T-shirt) – there is nowhere to hide. It’s an energetic performance with a lot of dancing, lifting and singing. No wonder they all have such firm abs.
Other than the jokes that could do with repatriation to the mid-70s, the production is an absolute joy to watch. Perfect stagecraft, immaculate choreography and perfect singing come together to raise up an already brilliant musical. It’s a satire on crime and celebrity that could have been written today. I’m not saying you should kill for a ticket, but if you do… just give ’em the old razzle dazzle!
[Catherine Rogan 18 October 2016]
Chicago is at Woking’s New Victoria theatre from Tuesday 18 October to Saturday 22 October, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday