Despite being set in Prohibition-era America, John Kander's and Fred Ebb's book reflects beautifully our modern-day obsession with criminality. “Murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery ...all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts ...”, proclaims MC Claire Rodgers as the curtain rises and we can all pinpoint immediately events in history more modern than the 1920s – O J Simpson, Jeffrey Archer and many others that have dug a scorpion-like sting into our consciousness.
Something as iconic as Chicago will always be viewed in relation to its big-budget cinema and stage antecedents. Bob Fosse’s choreography is difficult enough in itself to shake off, and choreographer Ann Reinking doesn’t try – each tip of the hat is exactly where her mentor had always intended it to be. We could accuse Reinking of a lack of imagination but, when you’re dealing with something so tangibly “not broken” in the public imagination, why fix it?
Tupele Dorgu makes a stunning and foxy Velma Kelly and, stepping into the spotlight to replace an indisposed Ali Bastian, Chloe Ames is a very credible Roxie Hart. Any real casting criticism goes to the choice of Bernie Nolan as prison matriarch Mama Morton. That Nolan has a beautiful voice is undeniable, but she clearly lacks the physical stature and grit of her predecessors in the part.
The revelation of the evening is Stefan Booth who gives a swaggering, cocky performance as lawyer Billy Flynn. More familiar for his television roles in Hollyoaks and The Bill, Booth excels in both stage presence and vocal ability, creating another monster of popular culture with consummate ease.
There’s not much love in evidence in Chicago – as the MC attests, it’s more about the hunt for fame and cynical exploitation than heart-felt tenderness. It’s very much Velma and Roxie’s story as they shrug off murder raps with the help of the reptilian Flynn. Roxie’s cuckold husband, Amos (Jamie Baughan) provides the only real pathos, but he’s so wet anyway that an internal cheer goes up each time this dimwit is thwarted.
Ken Billington’s stark lighting plot is pitched perfectly, creating enough light and shade to set off William Ivey Long’s sizzling array of scanty costumes. This is a gutsy show and needs space to soar. However, even a barn-like auditorium fails to offer adequate stage space – despite Chicago’s simple setting, most of which seems to be taken up by the onstage 11-piece orchestra. Other than that, it’s a fairly flawless production of a well-loved musical that just seems to improve with each outing.