NOTE: The following review dates from September 2001 and an earlier tour of this production. For current cast and venue information, see performance listings.
"Murder, greed, violence, corruption, exploitation, adultery, treachery... all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts." So begins the musical Chicago, and creators John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse never back off from developing their bold and sinister promise.
This promise is fulfilled by danger, razzle-dazzle and humour. It is the kiss-and-tell story of Roxie Hart (Jane Fowler), a nightclub dancer who kills her lover; Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright), a dancing jailbird with an ear for the headlines and an eye for talent; and Billy Flynn (John Altman), a sharp lawyer who turns Roxie into a celebrity. It provides a loving look back at vaudeville, a timely satire on the justice system and, above all, a reminder of how exhilarating musical theatre can be.
It takes a while for this audience to begin responding to the dark humour, but each number is rewarded with warm applause from the start. Fowler, who previously played one of the other Death Row dancers in the London production, is splendid as the lively and funny Roxie. She never stays down for long, and her cheerfulness and optimism become infectious. Wright's Velma, although seemingly hard-bitten and tough, is strangely vulnerable. And a surprise success is Altman, who thankfully keeps his Nick Cotton EastEnders persona well at bay - and he can sing a bit too.
All the individual performances are captivating, with the musical numbers performed with great passion and energy. One of the best is "Cell Block Tango", wonderfully projected by Velma and the girls. One niggle though, the music often resonates too loudly, overpowering those on stage – so tone it down, guys, and let us hear all the words. That said, the musicians play with a gusto that more than matches the dancers and are well orchestrated by Ralph Burns.
John Lea Beatty’s dark, minimalistic set, the subtle lighting from Ken Billington, and the skimpy black costumes of William Ivey Long all contribute richly to the style, sensuality, seductiveness and sleaziness of this Chicago.
The opening of the national UK tour in Manchester brings the number of productions concurrently running around the world to seven. Since opening in London in 1997, rave reviews and sold-out venues galore have followed. This show is now in serious danger of becoming a cult phenomenon. May we yet see the audience dressing up as Roxie, Velma, Billy Flynn or Mama Morton?
- reviewed by Val Bennion at Manchester's Opera House
To read a review of the West End production of this musical, click here.