Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
David Ian for Crossroads Live with Barry and Fran Weissler
The Opera House, Manchester

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Our current crop of politicians demonstrates the elite are immune to the consequences of their actions. Chicago, written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, extends this cynical attitude to show the best way of evading justice is to become a celebrity. There is little comfort for the innocent in this corrupt world. Hunyak (Hollie Jane Stephens), a Hungarian woman who cannot speak English, is condemned due to her lack of fame despite being not guilty. Non-entity Amos Hart (Jamie Baughan) leaves the stage unnoticed and without dignity even though he is an injured party. Yet it is hard to resist the swaggering celebration of the dark side of life.

Roxie Hart (Faye Brookes) is imprisoned for murdering her lover after he attempted to end their affair. In prison, Matron "Mama" Morton (Sheila Ferguson) openly solicits bribes in return for introducing prisoners to lawyer Billy Flynn (Liam Marcellino) who achieves acquittals by razzle-dazzling juries with the celebrity status of his clients. But Roxie has a rival for Billy’s attention—fellow convict Velma Kelly (Michelle Andrews) is regarded as a celebrity by the media and plans to use her notoriety to return to vaudeville as a star.

The opening of the show initially raises doubts—the curtain opens to the orchestra on a bandstand so large as to dominate the stage. This seems self-defeating, leaving little room for the ensemble to dance. But then Gary Chrys’s choreography (recreating Ann Reinking’s original routines which were in the style of Bob Fosse) is languid and sexy, the dancers swooning, twisting and contorting rather than flying high, so the limited space is not an obstacle.

The music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb reflect the cynical attitude of the script. The songs are drawling, sneering numbers delivered by characters convinced of their invulnerability and regarding other people as suckers to be exploited. Although the "Cell Block Tango" is sung with real anger, the fury originates not from a sense of injustice but outrage that anyone would dare consider the actions of the convicts unreasonable.

Chicago copies the sleazier side of showbiz. Each number is announced in the melodramatic style of vaudeville complete with drumroll. There is no sense of comforting illusion; the harsh Brechtian style—the cast in moody black and white costumes, the orchestra and rear wall of the stage visible and the fourth wall between the audience constantly broken—suits the jaded atmosphere of the musical.

This is a show where dishonestly is the norm. The second act opens with a cry of ‘’Hello suckers!’’ and a tap dance is announced but a soft shoe shuffle performed. The main characters behave as if they are in showbiz even during their daily routine; Liam Marcellino’s smarmy lawyer cockily times how long he can hold a particularly demanding note.

Since the show was conceived, the growth of the Internet has made social media more powerful in shaping public opinion, so the surprise revelation that one of the main reporters conceals a secret is now more relevant. Despite the characters constantly evading justice, the conclusion is bittersweet: a beautifully sung lament that even the gleefully corrupt times cannot last forever and things will change.

Although Chicago celebrates dishonesty, the current production does not cheat the audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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