Chicago, New Theatre, Oxford
The musical is actually based on the play by Chicago based reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins. The play in turn based on two trials she had covered, Beulah Annan, was the model for Roxie, married to a devoted car mechanic, she shot her lover. There was also Belva Gaertner, a cabaret singer, who was accused of shooting her lover but claimed he shot himself. The evidence said otherwise but both were acquitted, represented by celebrity lawyers who were to be the inspiration for Billy Flynn.
That was the way of doing things in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties when this Bob Fosse satire was set, with music by John Kander. Corruption in the justice system, and rather like today, a media obsessed with sensationalizing scandals.
A musical that seems to prove crime does pay, particularly if you are a slick lawyer or glamorous female killer with a sob story to tell.
From the start this musical is confident and brassy. With excellent choreography and the company deliver brilliantly. Casting for the main roles is faultless.
Tupele Dorgu demands attention as Velma Kelly and, with superb musicality and great comic timing, is fantastic as the leggy Velma Kelly, putting in a classy performance as the brash alleged double murderess. Velma is currently top dog in the women’s block at Cook County Jail awaiting trial for killing her husband and sister who were getting overly friendly with each other when she burst in on them.
She has her slights set on a future as a vaudeville star, being groomed by the Matron “Mama” Morton, wonderfully played by Genevieve Nicole (Bernie Nolan was indisposed.)
Mama helps get her girls off and sets them up with new careers, beginning by putting them in touch with celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, who can get anyone off anything for $5000.
Stefan Booth is the slick, smooth-talking lawyer with just the right amount of charm and swagger, proving he can hold a long note when singing as well as grasping a handful in the role of the crafty lawyer.
Ali Bastian is the not so innocent chorus girl Roxie Hart who shoots her lover Fred Caseley (Ian Oswald.) Displaying the nimble footwork that saw her reach the semi-final of Strictly Come Dancing, she does a fine job as Roxie, with a strong singing voice and lovely acting skills.
A highlight is her double act with Stefan Booth, as Billy Flynn, in We Both Reached for the Gun. If you want an idea of the routine check out her Charleston.
In the background, hardly noticed, is Amos Hart, Roxie’s gullible and naïve husband, beautifully played by Jamie Baughan, who loves Roxie enough to confess to her murder and even loves her when it is obvious the baby she is carrying cannot be his. He easily gains the audience’s sympathy with his rendition of the sad song Mr Cellophane.
I’d never seen Chicago on stage, only the film version starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger, so was familiar with most of the songs.
The show’s signature number, All That Jazz, led superbly by Velma then Roxie sings the bittersweet Funny Honey telling the audience about the husband she takes advantage of on a daily basis.
We had the Cell Block Tango, with six merry murderesses pleading understanding for the mitigating circumstances around each of their cases, all except from Hunyak, (Chloe Ames) a Hungarian who speaks no English apart from “Not Guilty” relying solely on the US justice system to establish her undoubted and genuine innocence. Billy Flynn explains it is not evidence but spin that wins trials in Razzle Dazzle and finally Roxie and Velma, finding their dream at last, as a Vaudeville double act in Nowadays.
It is however the dance routines that make Chicago such a fantastic piece of musical theatre,
With Fosse’s perfect style of choreography, a slick ensemble of dancers including Daniele Arbisi, Karen Aspinall, Gregor Stewart, Matt Krzan and Melanie Cripps.
Musicians form part of the set, behind the cast, in a multi-levelled backdrop comprised of stairs and an exit in the centre for cast members. With occasional interaction between the cast and the conductor and a lovely set piece by the whole orchestra after the interval, we feel as though the music really does take centre stage.
Finally, the ten-piece orchestra, directed by Adrian Kirk, are terrific, deserving the ovation which matched the one for the cast at the final curtain.