Wednesday 18 April 2018

Chicago @ The Phoenix Theatre

Chicago @ The Phoenix Theatre

For a show about celebrity, it's fitting that Chicago has so often been used as a star vehicle for both male and female actors. This revival of Kander & Ebb's sexiest show features the Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr as Billy Flynn - a piece of stunt casting that doesn't pay off.

He certainly has the dance moves as he swaggers on to the stage with boyish charm and an ill-fitting suit. Yet rather than exuding confidence, he appears nervous for his debut on the West End. Worse, he sings in a croaking whisper that lacks power, richness of tone, or faith in his ability - all necessary traits of this sleazy lawyer role.

Sadly, the remainder of this - exceedingly white - cast also fail to do their parts justice. Josefina Gabrielle purrs as Velma Kelly and Ruthie Henshall (well known for playing both other female roles) barks as Mama Morton, but both lack stage presence, rendering their performances forgettable. Sarah Soetaert plays Roxie Hart with girlish glee, commanding the stage and her group of male dancers in "Roxie" especially. But then, this is a role you can have so much more fun with than the other female protagonists.

The show itself is as timeless as ever, its satire of celebrity culture and the criminal justice system remaining potent and biting. No one could doubt this score, so full of memorable melodies and glorious orchestration.

This production, however, sticks stoically to the script - or at least that of the 1996 revival from Walter Bobbie. The staging is stark and minimalist, featuring the orchestra on-stage and a cast clad entirely in black. It's meant to be stylistically cool and to throw the performances into sharp relief, but here they flatline from an orgasmic cry to a whimper. Director Tânia Nardini has been tasked with simply re-creating Bobbie's vision - there's no room for flair or creativity here, so it all feels dated as a result.

Choreographer Gary Chryst, meanwhile, has recreated the choreography from that same 1996 revival, itself based on Fosse's original work - Chicago wouldn't be Chicago without it. The ensemble of dancers slink and prowl across the stage, but too often they skip over key moments and quotes instead of relishing in the dark comedy, in the seduction. The "Cell Block Tango", for instance, is a real disappointment here. Even Velma and Roxie's "Hot Honey Rag" finale is far from the showstopper it should be, lacking in excitement, energy and spark.

It all amounts to a Chicago that shoots and misses the mark. It's all sex and no substance, no originality, no danger. The slow ooze of style and effortless charisma has been lost. Razzle dazzle is nowhere to be found.


Watch: Chicago runs at the Phoenix Theatre until October 2018.

Chicago @ The Phoenix Theatre

Chicago @ The Phoenix Theatre