As I walked away from the opening night, I just couldn't quite decide what to make of Chicago.
For short periods, I found myself quite engrossed, struggling to digest the feast of sound and movement on stage. But at other times I just drifted away, my eyes and mind wandering listlessly. It was a classic case of the curate's egg, I suppose; good in parts, not so good in others. I wanted to like it, but ultimately my theatrical belly was left rumbling and undernourished.
Set in Chicago (surprise, surprise) in the late 1920s, the musical charts the fall and rise of sassy nightclub performer Roxie Hart - played on the first night by understudy Leyla Pellegrini. After shooting dead her lover, Roxie ends up in jail with blonde bombshell entertainer, Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright), who is also awaiting trial for murder. But despite her predicament, Velma is currently the darling of the tabloids thanks to the efforts of her smooth-talking, money-grabbing, celebrity lawyer, Billy Flynn.
Luckily for doe-eyed brunette Roxie, Matron 'Mama' Morton (Marjorie Keys) takes her under her wing, and arranges for her to be represented by Flynn - for a large fee, of course. With Roxie suddenly getting all the media attention, Velma quickly falls out of favour and becomes increasingly desperate to rekindle her lost fame.
Playing Velma, Wright caught the eye and ear from the outset. Pumped full of sultry Monroe-like attitude, she exuded a great stage presence that simply demanded your attention. She sung powerfully and strutted around the stage with wonderful confidence and style. Standing in for Jane Fowler, Pellegrini carried off the part of Roxie very competently, but was alas never quite in the same league as her blonde rival.
It was nice to see Altman leave all traces of his most famous part - 'Nasty' Nick Cotton from EastEnders - at the stage door. He gave a polished performance as lawyer Flynn, but sadly sounded like he'd been at Dot's fags during his opening musical number, 'All I Care About'. In contrast, Martin Callaghan, who was wonderfully understated as Roxie's limp and long-suffering husband Amos, clearly had a fantastic voice but never got the chance to use it.
Marjorie Keys must also get a mention for her superb cameo role, and her booming solo rendition of 'When You're Good To Mama' was one of the musical highlights of the evening.
Speaking of the music, if you go to see Chicago, you won't see the orchestra cooped up in the pit at the front of the stage, as per usual. In this production they are very much part of the action; the conductor frequently interacts with the characters, who dart all around the huge podium upon which he and his musicians sit.
I thought this was an nice idea, even though it proved highly distracting at time. During some of the longer, slower and frankly quite boring musical interludes , I found myself scrutinising what the likes of the trombonists, drummer and double bassist were up to, instead of following the story. But having said this, the orchestra livened up a very dark and one-dimensional set, and their big show-off jazz numbers in Act II had a packed house whooping with delight. At times they were in very serious danger of stealing the show.
Having characters not involved in the action sat on wooden chairs down the side of the stage, doing their own thing, was also an interesting idea. But again, it prompted the eyes and mind to wander at times.
As one would expect from such a high profile production, Chicago was superbly choreographed from start to finish, the entire stage often a blur of leaping and twisting bodies. The majority of the music was of a high standard, and apart from the renditions already mentioned, 'We Both Reached for the Gun' and 'When Velma Takes the Stand' stood out.
So what of my criticisms? Well, the pace seemed rather sluggish at times. True, Chicago does include some nice snappy dialogue and amusing black humour. But some of the slower musical numbers, which did little or nothing to move the story along, had me daydreaming. And as enjoyable as their efforts were, the orchestra was quite deafening at times, which made hearing some of the dialogue impossible.
The plot itself was adequate but nothing special - and indeed that's where my main problem lies. Yes it looked good, yes it sounded good, and yes there were some great individual performances. But it's certainly not a production that will stick long in my memory. It's just far too unremarkable for that, and the less said about the woefully weak ending the better.
Chicago may well be known as the Windy City. But I'm afraid I was hardly blown away by this production.
Copyright J A Waddington 2002. For syndication rights, please email.
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'Chicago may well be known as the Windy City. But Iím afraid I was hardly blown away by this production'