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Chicago review London Phoenix Theatre | West End Musical

Sarah Soetaert (Roxie Hart) - centre seated - with the cast of CHICAGO, credit Tristram Kenton
Sarah Soetaert (Roxie Hart) – centre seated – with the cast of CHICAGO, credit Tristram Kenton

You may well have been in a situation before where two or more people are saying something at the same time. In the melee of words streaming forth, nobody’s voice stands out, and whatever was being said, by whoever, is lost: all that is heard is a wall of sound. Such was the feeling I had part-way through the first half of this West End revival production of Chicago The Musical: it was easy enough to deduce approximately what was going on, but who was saying what to whom? There could have been some lyrical gems in, but I couldn’t possibly tell say.

I turn to the elephant in the room: the casting of Cuba Gooding Jr as Billy Flynn, the high-flying defence attorney, an actor with an illustrious motion picture career (and an Academy Award-winning one at that). While the acting suits the role well, his singing vocals aren’t, at the risk of sounding terse, quite what would be ideal for a part that demands a decent range and at least some nuance. That said, listening to Gooding, whether speaking or singing, was never a chore, and one should also bear in mind he’s on stage alongside the likes of Josefina Gabrielle’s Velma Kelly and Sarah Soetaert’s Roxie Hart, both quite sublime. Their one-upmanship (or, rather, one-upwomanship) is theatrical brilliance. Gooding does have charisma and stage presence, and in that regard holds his own alongside his character’s clients.

The bigger problem, it seems to me, is that this production feels somewhat worn out. The staging is perhaps too simplistic – a scene in a court, for instance, sees The Judge (Matt Krzan) dressed in mufti. ‘Razzle Dazzle’ didn’t have that much razzle-dazzle. What the show has to say about notoriety – in, say, ‘Cell Block Tango’, where a number of off-stage characters meet their sorry end in the anecdotes sung – and how this can be used as a springboard to fame and success, left me with a rather sour (proverbial) aftertaste in these days of ‘fake news’.

Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton in CHICAGO credit Tristram Kenton
Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton in CHICAGO credit Tristram Kenton

For some fellow theatregoers who recall Chicago The Musical in its previous West End incarnation, the dancing and movement brought back pleasant memories. For people like me, experiencing the show for the first time, it came across as a missed opportunity to take a fresh look at the show and jazz things up more than a bit. It’s as if the Bob Fosse-esque choreography was being treated as though it were a listed building: the structure is to be left alone, with any alterations potentially resulting in legal action. Matron Morton (Ruthie Henshall), was more ‘Big Sister’ than the ‘Mama’ title ascribed to her – I thought she could have been more authoritative. She seems too kind to be a ‘matron’ in the proper sense of the word, ruling over her domain not letting anyone get away with anything.

The orchestra, directed by Ian Townsend, is on stage throughout. They were utterly delightful to watch and listen to. Amos Hart (Paul Rider) provides the most endearing number in the whole show, ‘Mister Cellophane’, eliciting the most audible sympathetic responses from the audience, with every justification. Fans and followers of Chicago will, no doubt, continue to derive enjoyment with each visit to this revival. But I came away without being blown away by what I had seen, or humming any of the tunes on the way home.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Starring Academy Award-Winner Cuba Gooding Jnr as Billy Flynn, Sarah Soetaert as Roxie Hart, Josefina Gabrielle as Velma Kelly and Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton.

Chicago is bringing the real razzle-dazzle back to London! Winner of six Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards and a Grammy the sexiest, sassiest, most sophisticated Broadway musical in history is celebrating 21 years of standing ovations in style.

The dazzling multi-award-winning tale of nightclub singer Roxie Hart, her cell-block rival Velma Kelly and the smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn has thrilled audiences in London, Broadway and across the world from Mexico City to Moscow, from Sao Paulo to South Africa since 1996.

With the original Broadway choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse and a sizzling score featuring the classic songs Razzle Dazzle, Cell Block Tango and All That Jazz, Chicago is so good it should be illegal.

Book Chicago tickets online now

CHICAGO

Phoenix Theatre
Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JP
Booking Period: 26 March – 23 June 2018
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Age Restrictions: 16+

Get ready to journey into the supernatural world of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, coming to the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End in November 2023.

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