Review: Chicago (Phoenix Theatre)

The hit musical makes a West End return starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Ruthie Henshall, Josefina Gabrielle and Sarah Soetaert

The cast of Chicago
The cast of Chicago
© Tristram Kenton

There's no getting around it; Chicago is an institution. The world's longest running American musical (it just celebrated 21 years on Broadway) and the West End's longest running revival, it's been seen by an estimated 31 million people and won six Tonys, two Oliviers and a Grammy.

So how do you tackle its return to London after a five-and-a-half-year absence? You don't mess with the formula. You stick to the show's central tenets: sex, slick comedy, big vocals and high kicks; you recreate the choreography and direction that has worked for years; you bring back tried-and-tested leads; and you add in a celebrity star turn.

At least, that's what this production does. It doesn't make for the most groundbreaking night at the theatre. But it does mean they'll surely have a solid hit on their hands.

The female leads are all old hands – the sort whose confidence and polish makes them not just enjoyable but positively relaxing to watch. Ruthie Henshall, who originated the role of Roxie Hart in the West End, and later played Velma Kelly, completes the triumvirate by taking on Mama Morton. But while her vocals soar, the thrum of Mama's sexual power is noticeably muted. Josefina Gabrielle (who played Roxie for years) takes on Velma, delivering vampy swagger turned squirming desperation. But Sarah Soetaert's Roxie is my pick of the bunch, splicing the murderess' hard-nosed ambition with a winning goofiness.

The show's celebrity import is Cuba Gooding Jr, whose Academy Award-winning acting chops are more than evident in the charismatic lawyer Billy Flynn. But his husky singing voice struggles with the music's range and the chorus soon become a blessing-cum-curse – a flawless bunch of number-nailing, sex-oozing pros that simultaneously buoy up and show up their American star.

That said, Gooding Jr. does make a grand job of Ann Reinking's choreography (recreated here by Gary Chryst), which brings some fun inventive touches to the usual vaudeville fare.

Invention is also at the heart of some of the show's best scenes. Roxie's trial is the highlight, with playful lighting, ingenious use of the chorus, and a brilliant sequence involving a single juror who morphs from one zany character to the next before our eyes.

John Lee Beatty's set puts the exceptional orchestra front and centre, keeping up the meta-theatricality of the show's vaudeville framework, and giving plenty of opportunity for fun interactions with the cast. But while the few chairs and ladders that make up the rest of the sparse set are imaginatively used – becoming courtrooms, murder scenes and gallows – I longed for a little more, well, razzle-dazzle.

Despite its flaws, though, with music so iconic, a creative blueprint so enduring, and a cast this strong, Chicago's latest outing will be a firm crowd favourite.