REVIEW: CHICAGO (Phoenix Theatre) ★★★

Kander & Ebb’s Chicago is a theatrical institution. One of the heavy-weight champions of American musical theatre, the shows accolades are many including holding the records for the longest running musical revival and second longest running musical on Broadway and the longest running American musical in both America and The West End. Having been seen by over 31 million people worldwide, translated into twelve different languages, adapted into a major motion picture starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere it’s safe to say Chicago is one of the worlds most loved musicals. After a five year absence from the West End the celebrated musical has returned with a fabulous star-studded cast to bring All That Jazz back to London at the Phoenix Theatre.

Based on a play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins of actual crimes and criminals she reported, Chicago is a satire of corruption in the criminal justice system and the concept of celebrity criminals. Bring the story of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery” to this production are a cast of strong women who are no strangers to the musical. Ruthie Henshall who was the original Roxie Hart in the West End revival and played both Roxie and Velma on Broadway plays prison warden Mama Morton, Josefina Gabrielle who previously played Roxie on numerous occasions is Velma Kelly and Sarah Soetaert recreates her Roxie Hart, a role she’s previously played at both the Cambride and Garrick Theatres. Adding to this fierce line up is Academy Award-Winner Cuba Gooding Jr tackling the role of “silver tongued prince of the courtroom” lawyer Billy Flynn, A D Richardson as Mary Sunshine and Paul Rider who returns to play Roxie’s sweet if somewhat unnoticed husband Amos Hart, a role he has also played at the Adelphi and Cambridge Theatres.

As Velma, Josefina Gabrielle’s vocal was clean, strong and could easily handle the score. Her performance of Velma was expertly executed. Sarah Soetaert’s performance of Roxie was fun, equally matching Gebrielle’s strong vocal performance. Originally from Belgium, Soetaert’s accent during dialogue was a confused mix of Californian, New York and Southern and I found it quite distracting throughout her performance. As Mama Morton, Ruthie Henshaw shone. The true mark of a seasoned performer, she served her unique style of velvety vocals mixed with sex appeal to give a Mama Morton that was a joy to watch during her all too brief moments on stage. Paul Rider gave a lovely Amos Hart and the audience really felt for him, performing Mister Cellophane with a quiet earnest spirit that was very affecting. The standout performance came from A D Richardson as Mary Sunshine who maintained character throughout the choreography and vocal like no other actor in the show. Every line delivered appeared to have been thought about in a way that really made Mary Sunshine come alive. Richardson gave some alternate higher notes during the ending of A Little Bit Of Good which made the vocal fresh, new and energised which was much needed in such a well-known and loved show.

Academy Award Winner Cuba Gooding Jr has been brought in to play Billy Flynn for this production and unfortunately misses the mark at almost every step. His voice seemed very tired which resulted in a growling vocal which grated during his songs and he often dropped the ends of his words during dialogue which meant the audience missed certain plot points. He waived his arms and legs about as he walked around the stage so much that it became distracting whenever he moved. Billy’s first entrance comes after considerable build up from the ensemble and he quips Ted Lewis’s famous “Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?” before telling the band to “Hit It!”, Gooding Jr’s voice was unable to deliver this with dexterity or confidence, missing Billy Flynn’s most obvious characteristic. His performance was the most exposed during Razzle Dazzle and this became the most disappointing number in the show. The one respite in his performance was in We Both Reached For The Gun, I really enjoyed his dance and the cheeky look Sarah Soetaert’s Roxie gave him as they passed each other.

While Chicago is an institution of musical theatre, that doesn’t mean the roles should be performed by rote. I unfortunately felt that, with the exception of Ruthie Henshall, A D Richardson and Paul Rider, the majority of performances were phoned in and I was very aware I was watching someone do their job. I believe a fresh director is needed to go in and inject new life into the performances. Audiences nowadays expect a lot from theatre and how it’s performed and for Chicago to compete with other shows on the west end the performers need to give so much. While the well-known choreography, band and staging of this production of Chicago are fun to see, I feel the production is now dated and needs new life or better detailed direction to bring out the best of it’s performers.

Reviewed by Stuart James



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