As musicals go, Chicago is the equivalent of the neighbourhood slut. Based on the 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, the Broadway production has been performed more than 5,000 times since its 1996 revival. And London’s West End version has just celebrated its eleventh birthday.
In its current incarnation at the Cambridge Theatre, Chicago has had more than its fair share of celebrity performers (and not always entirely credible ones either; Kelly Osbourne, Jennifer Ellison and Ashlee Simpson have all had stints as leading lady Roxie Hart). Aoife Mulholland, however, is perfect for the role; a manipulative, flirtatious mix of vulnerability, desire and ambition, although her girlish charms are overshadowed at times by the brutal drag-queen snarl of Tiffany Graves’ viciously charismatic Velma Kelly.
I’m a complete sucker for spectacle; there’s no point in denying it. And on that front, Chicago definitely doesn’t disappoint. Sequins, seamed fishnet stockings and false eyelashes so huge they could cause tornadoes with a single flutter, evoke Twenties glamour with style and ease. Prominently positioned centre-stage, the house band is slickly integrated into the musical numbers, heightening the seedy-jazz-club atmosphere.
The entire production is meticulously choreographed, in the immediately recognisable style of Bob Fosse; director and choreographer of Weimar Republic cult classic Cabaret. The routines are a conscious, sophisticated embodiment of the brash energy and stylised sexuality of 1920s vaudeville and burlesque.
Highlights include a powerful performance by X-Factor finalist Brenda Edwards as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, whose bawdy rendition of When You’re Good to Mama is both soulful and hilarious. Ian Kelsey (Dave Glover in Emmerdale/Danny from Grease) is suave and seductive as notoriously corrupt criminal lawyer Billy Flyn. We Both Reached for the Gun, in which he uses Roxie as a ventriloquist’s dummy to claim her innocence to a circus of reporters, is a cute pastiche of the media hoopla that surrounds celebrity criminal trials.
Deceptively simple in terms of costumes, set-changes and props, Chicago is flawlessly executed; recreating a cell block, courtroom, and other locations with just a few chairs, oversized ostrich-feather fans, some reporters’ notebooks and a newspaper with the headline Roxie Rocks Chicago.
Some might argue that productions like this favour style over substance, and they wouldn’t be far wrong. But if razzle dazzle is what you want, then look no farther. Whilst it may be predominantly hollow of emotional complexity or depth, Chicago is a glorious, foot-tapping, finger-clicking romp. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger just didn’t do it justice.
Chicago is at the Cambridge Theatre until July 31
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