Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander, Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, based on the play by Maurice Dallas Watkins
Palace Theatre, Manchester, and touring
Review by Andrew Edwards
Chicago holds the record for being the longest running revival on Broadway. On this showing in a packed Manchester Palace Theatre it's not difficult to see why. The dancing and the singing are of a very high order throughout and the staging is superb.
The story is based on a famous play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter who covered the trials of two murderesses in Chicago in 1924. She resisted attempts to have it made into a musical but when she died in 1969 the rights were sold to Messrs Kander, Ebb and choreographer Bob Fosse. They worked their considerable magic and by 1975 a musical legend was born.
The two leading characters Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly dominate the show. Roxie murders her boyfriend and persuades her doltish husband Amos to stand by her. And Velma murders her husband and sister when she finds them in bed together. Both women end up in the women's block of Cook County jail overseen by the Matron Mama Morton. Both vie for the services of top lawyer Billy Flynn and the rest of the musical shows the tortuous legal process as well as the competition between the two women. This is interspersed with the attempts of both leading characters to manipulate the press, the men with whom they are involved and latterly the judge and jury.
This reviewer won't spoil the suspense by revealing whether either get off their charge. The piece is as much about the corruption in the legal system in the 20s and by extension the 70s. The way criminals can make headlines and become in some cases almost mini celebrities is very much what this musical is confronting with much cynical humour. After the trial the media circus moves on and Roxie has to experience considerable deflation as she realises she will never be the star she had hoped.
All the trademark Fosse touches are there. Tight fitting black costumes revealing cleavage and buffed up torsoes. The dancing is strongly influenced by modern jazz and tap and very skilfully executed. The set piece routines ooze with sex and sensuality. Bodies stomp and strut or shimmy in between the glare of the pencil spot lights. The set is made up of a central structure where the jazz band plays and in front of which the cast perform.They also occasionally perform on this unit which deftly incorporates a moving platform. This allows certain characters to slowly appear or disappear. Many of the scenes are evoked by clever use of spot lights and the patterns they create on the stage floor and there is much use of the follow spot on the main characters. This has the effect of reminding the audience they are witnessing a performance.
The songs are reminiscent of the performances of a range of vaudeville acts and they move the plot along whilst also commenting on the action.
The whole piece has more than a whiff of Cabaret, another huge success for Kander and Ebb.
As the two leads both Emma Barton as Roxie and Twinnie Lee Moore as Velma excel. They worked very well alone or with each other as in the fantastic black tight top hat and cane finale numbers Nowadays and Hot Honey Rag.
On balance this reviewer was struck by the X Factor appeal of Barton who is better known as a television actress. She had a particular pizazz that is difficult to describe but has to do with a peculiar mix of skill and confidence as well as just seeming to revel in her every moment on stage. Twinnie Lee Moore had the height, the voice and the moves but somehow lacked that extra sparkle.
Gary Wilmot as Billy Flynn brings his charisma and experience in abundance. He always makes such a powerful connection with an audience and this performance is no exception. From his grand entrance in the Busby Berkeley inspired "All I care about" through to the fantastic set piece "We both reached for the gun" where Roxie is his ventriloquist's dummy his authority and pleasing manner raised the production considerably. He also has an enjoyable baritone singing voice.
Wendy Lee Purdy made a feisty corrupt Matron Mama Morton with one of the most powerful singing voices on the stage. Her movements were rather stilted however. Adam Stafford as Amos, Roxie's lamb like husband, brought great pathos and wit. His slow movement with his hands in white gloves in his one big number "Mr Cellophane" put this reviewer in mind of the mime artist Marcel Marceau so effective was the performance. G.E.Weaver as Mary Sunshine the sympathetic tabloid columnist trod very carefully between parody and believability.
The chorus worked exceptionally well. The stand out number was "Tap Dance" where two men worked beautifully with Emma Barton.
The words sultry and sexy are the most appropriate. The fluid way they were able to move their arms as well as gyrate their hips was a revelation. Director Scott Faris and Choreographer Gary Chryst have clearly drilled their company very effectively.
The audience lapped up the high octane energy level on the stage. People were clearly singing the show's two biggest numbers "All that jazz" and "Razzle Dazzle" as they exited into the unseasonably temperate Manchester night.