Irresistible music, dramatic staging and sensational delivery: Kander and Ebb’s Chicago is at the Congress Theatre this week, and corruption was never more dazzling.
One reviewer early in the tour called the show underpowered, but that was then, as they say. Whatever has happened on the road since, this Congress performance plays at never less than full throttle.
In the modern fashion, the band is onstage and upstage, tiered and prominent. Musically and theatrically it works well, with plenty of witty interaction as actors enter and exit through the middle of the musicians. Ensemble routines are tight and dazzling, and filled with electric, very slightly self-conscious sensuality. The choreography is a kind of Cats with attitude, all sinuous and provocatively flexible.
Lighting is also key. Stunning spotlights pierce the auditorium, singling out characters as if to expose their very souls, while other effects bathe the stage blood-red or pick out ghastly faces. The direction has remarkable attention to detail and a deal of originality – notably a wonderful ventriloquist-and-dummy number from Billy and Roxie.
All That Jazz, He Had It Coming, Razzle Dazzle, When You’re Good to Mama: the show has retained popularity through its terrific music and dance numbers, but you need to take the story itself as parody, not reality. Slick, unscrupulous lawyers surely cannot win not-guilty verdicts for a murderess? It only happens in musicals. But then, national television is currently running that OJ Simpson Versus the People series…
It’s all very knowing. Values are inverted, deception becomes truth, and the bad guys win. Never mind: this is no morality tale, and anyway the bad guys are simply delicious.
Sam Bailey is greeted by the audience as a long lost friend, and under her loving care, cell block life becomes a quite attractive option. Hayley Tammadon plays Roxie Hart sweetly and sympathetically, even betraying a vulnerability not often seen in the character. Her singing is superb, and alongside her, Sophie Carmen-Jones is an equally fabulous Velma Kelly with a brilliant razor edge. John Partridge’s Billy Flynn is more caricature than credible, but he sings powerfully and dominates the action.
A D Richardson – last seen in Eastbourne in that priceless all-male Pinafore – literally stuns the audience with his remarkable counter tenor voice as gossip columnist Mary Sunshine, while Neil Ditt, Roxy’s hapless husband, wins the audience with his superb Mr Cellophane number. Among many cameo parts, Dann Kharsa is a hilarious jury foreman with just a touch of upstaging.
The action slows towards the end of Act One – a weakness of the thin plot rather than the performing – but the band kicks off the second half with an enjoyably dissolute Entr’Acte, and the story then picks up pace, building to a magnificently staged courtroom denouement.
Oh, and an admirable touch to present each member of the ensemble by name in the walk-down. In so many shows, they are the unsung heroes, but the energy and precision of this group fully merits their mention. It’s a night of sizzling entertainment. By Kevin Anderson.