Chicago will give you a much-needed dose of razzle dazzle, mixed with a welcome familiarity, says Laura Sexton after reviewing it at the Phoenix Theatre in London.
As it returns to London after a five-year break, my expectations were unsurprisingly extremely high going in. And although the show may not scream perfection, it wins hands down for making the audience feel part of the action.
Okay, so it’s likely true that the show has used the casting of American star Cuba Gooding Jr as its hook, but each and every performer in the production, Gooding included, proves themselves to be a star in their own right.
The curtains open to reveal a live band who instantly transport you to an American jazz bar in the 1920s. As the audience become immersed you’re introduced to Velma Kelly, played by Josefina Gabrielle, singing All That Jazz. It is during this scene that we first see our lead, Roxie Hart played by Sarah Soetaert, who ends up murdering her lover in a rage.
Pictured: Cuba Gooding Jr as Billy Flynn and Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Hart.
Chicago tells the story of Cook County Jail and the murderesses on Murder Row, including Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly who both, along with others, have been accused of killing their lovers and husbands. Both characters employ successful lawyer Billy Flynn to help protect them, who comes up with a multitude of lies to help them cover their tracks. Meanwhile Hart becomes famous as the world wants to know her ‘story’.
Josefina Gabrielle, who has played the role of Roxie Hart previously, portrays Kelly effortlessly, with humour, sensuality and the ability to easily fall into the splits. Having not seen the show before but being a fan of the story and music, I have to say Gabrielle’s Velma Kelly is exactly how I imagined.
Roxie Hart is played by Sarah Soetaert, whose curly blonde locks and selfish personality make her a character you both love and despise. But Soetaert does this brilliantly, making the audience root for Roxie despite knowing that she (and presumably nearly all her fellow murderesses) is in fact guilty.
Cuba Gooding Jr as Billy Flynn is good but not the highlight of the show. Unfortunately, his voice doesn’t quite compete with the chorus and his fellow principals. This being said, his husky voice rather suits the role of the sleazy lawyer, so although some might criticise it, I think it’s fair to say it does add to the success of the show.
Ruthie Henshall who plays Matron ‘Mama’ Morton has one of the best voices of the show, but this is to be expected as she is somewhat of a Chicago veteran, having previously starred as both Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. In fact, herself and Gooding receive the loudest whoops and whistles when they enter the stage.
Pictured: Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Hart and Josefina Gabrielle as Velma Kelly.
The set does not change during the show, which means that all eyes are drawn to the characters. Instead props are used such as ladders and chairs. The chorus play all their characters in the same outfits too – their raunchy nightlife costumes - which I have to say look somewhat amusing when they are pretending to be journalists.
The Cell Block Tango sung by Velma Kelly and the Murderesses is a personal highlight. Having loved the song for years, this rendition was both reminiscent of previous versions and able to create its own style. In fact, every song in the show, from Roxie to Razzle Dazzle and Mister Cellaphane to Nowadays, shines a spotlight on its casts’ abilities, as well as the fun that the show offers.
And that’s the thing about Chicago, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And because of this the audience is able to relax throughout, not worried that a stunt won’t be pulled off, or a line might be missed. It almost feels like the cast are just so used to doing it that it’s just part of their day and you happen to be in it. The songs are timeless, and the plot is as far from your typical love story as it can get.
So, for anyone who wants to escape clichés and who enjoy a real night of showbiz and comedy, Chicago is back with a bang and can be trusted to look after you. Besides, who wants a run of the mill show Nowadays, anyway?
Chicago is currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End, where it is taking bookings until October. Group rates are available.
Image credits: Tristram Kenton.