Yesterday evening, as my train ground to a halt somewhere outside Lewisham, I sent a little prayer to the train gods (a.k.a. Southeastern) to please sort it out and get me to the theatre on time. Quite apart from the fact that I hate being late for anything – especially the theatre – I was on my way to see Chicago, and I think most people would agree that if you miss the opening number of Chicago, you’ve missed one of the best bits.
Fortunately, the train gods were in a good mood for a change, so I made it to the Orchard in time to sit back, relax and enjoy Kander and Ebb’s classic musical about “murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery… all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts”. Set in the 1920s, Chicago is a darkly satirical story based on a play by Maurine Watkins (which in turn was inspired by real events). Wannabe star Roxie Hart murders her lover and ends up in prison alongside singer Velma Kelly, accused of killing her husband and sister. But when they both hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn, the women soon realise that innocence and guilt mean very little in the courts of Chicago, and that it’s the media, not the jury, that they need to win over.
With a minimalist set – the only props are a few chairs and a couple of ladders – and no need for any significant costume changes, all our attention is focused on the cast and their performances, and they don’t disappoint. This particular revival, the latest of many, features a star turn from Hayley Tamaddon as Roxie, while Sophie Carmen-Jones – who doesn’t get her name on the posters, but really should – razzle dazzles as queen bee Velma. Sam Bailey also stands out as Mama Morton; she’s a convincing figure of authority, but with a note of genuine affection for the women in her charge – and . And John Partridge is all charm and fancy footwork as Billy Flynn – though his vocals are noticeably less strong than those of his co-stars, this didn’t seem to dent the audience’s enthusiasm at the end of each number.
This could be because what makes Chicago such a fantastic show is the music – provided by Ben Atkinson’s enthusiastic orchestra, who are on stage throughout – and the Fosse-inspired choreography from Anne Reinking. These are the kinds of spectacular numbers that would glaringly expose any mistakes, but the cast don’t put a foot wrong; they’re perfectly in sync and working as one throughout – never more so than in the Press Conference Rag, which, along with All That Jazz, is one of the highlights of the show. That said, I really can’t pick a favourite song; they’re all so infectious and it’s no wonder the entire cast look like they’re having the time of their lives.
There’s a reason Chicago’s been a hit with audiences since its premiere in 1975: it’s slick, sexy (did I mention the ridiculously attractive cast?) and oh so stylish, with a satirical humour that makes for some great one-liners, but also makes a serious – and still relevant – point about the damaging and seemingly limitless power of the media to influence public opinion. Add to that the timeless score and slick choreography, and I’ve no doubt this show will be entertaining us for many years to come.
Chicago is at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 5th March.