Chicago the Musical

Music by John Kander, book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Sunderland Empire Theatre

I first saw Chicago on Broadway in 1998, with the Ute Lemper and Karen Ziemba. Already a convert to the choreography of Bob Fosse, I simply fell in love with the show, so when I saw that the touring version was coming to the Sunderland Empire Theatre, then I knew I had to see it again.

I also knew that it would make a useful review for this site, remembering how differently I had reacted to Les Miserables last year, fifteen years on. I came away from that show feeling a little dissatisfied and I wondered if I would feel the same about Chicago.

I didn't. Like Les Mis, the production is exactly the same as the original but, unlike it, the original production did not have anyone whose style was as idiosyncratic as Colm Wilkinson's, so, although the touring cast had to follow the "house style" exactly, it did not create the same artificial impression that I got from Les Mis. Even Velma's wig looked natural!

The strength of the show is in the choreography. A colleague who saw it a couple of days after me said he found it a little boring, but he went on to admit that he has no understanding of (or even feeling for) dance. I was reminded of another colleague's reaction to Cats, which basically amounted to "liked the music: hated the show". She, too, admits to a lack of appreciation of dance.

I was reminded, too, of an amateur performer of my acquaintance who appeared in an AmOp production some years ago - I can't remember how long ago, but it was certainly before the revival - who found it "fairly dull."

Trying to imagine the show without the choreography, I begin to see their point. The music and lyrics are good, but hardly brilliant - in my orginal review I used the word "derivative" of some of the tunes - and the book, in fact, is minimal. It isn't even consistent: most of the time the scenes are presented as cabaret performances (the wonderful tango sung by the six murderesses, for example), but then we have short scenes appearing to carry the action forward, such as when Billy Flynn (played in this production by John Altman, best known as Nick Cotton in EastEnders) cons Amos Hart into divorcing Roxie.

It's the dance that does it! And I don't think it would have worked with any other style than Fosse's, which is so perfectly suited to the sleazy subject matter. And I can well see that if you don't enjoy dance and, in particular, are not in tune with Fosse's style, then you will find it less than exciting.

Still, any show that can almost fill (I reckon the house was in excess of 90%) a 1875-seater provincial theatre on a Tuesday night has got to be something special!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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