Chicago – Review – Leeds Grand
Chicago – Review
Leeds Grand, November 2016
by Sandra Callard
Prepare yourself for some serious ‘razzle-dazzle’, as the latest revival of the hit musical Chicago opens at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, the musical is based on a play of the same name by New York crime reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. She in turn bases the story on the real-life criminals and events she reports on during her career.
The Broadway production in 1975 was an instant hit. It transfers across the Atlantic to London’s West End in 1979, and opens to immediate acclaim. It runs in the West End for 15 years. The Oscar-winning film follows in 2002. Quite a pedigree, which I have somehow missed along the way. So let’s see what all the fuss is about?
The story is a satire on corruption in the American criminal justice system of the 1920s. It also highlights the concept of the ‘celebrity criminal’ which was endemic in Chicago in the early 20th century.
Two women murderers, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, are both trying to achieve acquittal at their trials. They attempt this with the help of a manipulative and corrupt lawyer, Billy Flynn, who can play the newspapers, the entertainment business and the judicial system with skillful avarice.
“Her sinuous movements seem to defy nature and gravity”
Hayley Tamaddon plays Roxie. She’s a familiar face from television and, more recently, stage musicals. She can sing, dance and act, and is no slouch when it comes to comedy too. She can imitate the lightening positions and contortions of silent movie comedians, and hold them with confidence.
Sophie Carmen-Jones has the role of Velma Kelly, furious because Roxie is stealing her thunder in the show trial. She’s desperate to get back to being Billy Flynn’s main priority. Carmen-Jones is a faultless dancer. Her breathing and energy are superb, and her solo pieces are some of the best I have ever seen. She possesses an elegant beauty, and her sinuous movements seem to defy nature and gravity.
John Partridge is Billy Flynn, and herein lies a problem. A handsome man with a great stage presence. He has the exquisite grace of a ballet-trained dancer. He has the cool and hypnotic manner of a true exploiter. But, oh dear, what on earth has happened to his voice? Did he have an attack of laryngitis, but felt that ‘the show must go on’? Or could the rasping croak he emits really be his true voice?
But a greater shock follows. As he sings ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, he holds a reverberating note of such power and length that the audience burst into applause before he finishes. It is magnificent. So I am truly baffled. Nevertheless, he is totally watchable and takes command of every scene he plays.
“The vitality and exuberance is there in spades”
The orchestra, rarely seen, are on stage the whole time, as the jazz band that accompanies every number. Taking up two-thirds of the stage, they provide the essential accompaniment to the action, and also do a neat turn in comedy.
The big disappointment is Jessie Wallace as Matron ‘Mamma’ Morton. She looks good and sings ‘When You’re Good to Mamma’ really well, but her scenes are few. She seems detached, and looks as if she would like to be somewhere else. In a show that is loud, brash and bold, her apathy is startling. If the part was cut it would not be missed at all.
Chicago‘s male and female dancers are superb in their skimpy, provocative outfits, and their gestures and movements have distinctly sexual overtones, but the tone of the show is a defiantly light-hearted amusement at life, and to take offence would seem crass.
Some of the minor rolls are real gems, with A D Richardson as Mary Sunshine, and Neil Ditt as Amos Hart providing consummate cameos of their characters, which both please and surprise.
Perhaps not the best production ever staged, but the vitality and exuberance is there in spades, and the music and dancing in itself is worth an evening out.
Photos by Catherine Ashmore