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Review round-up: Chicago starring Cuba Gooding Jr at Phoenix Theatre, London

Cuba Gooding Jr,, Sarah Soetaert and Paul Rider in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s back. After a six-year hiatus touring the provinces [1], Kander and Ebb’s classic 1975 musical returns to the West End [2], where it chalked up a mammoth 15 years between 1997 and 2012, first at the Adelphi Theatre, then at the Cambridge, and latterly at the Garrick. Now it’s at the Phoenix, where it will stay until at least October.

It’s the same old 1996 Broadway-originated production – Walter Bobbie’s direction, John Lee Beatty’s design and Ann Reinking’s Bob Fosse-esque choreography – but it’s got a new star: the Academy Award-winning Cuba Gooding Jr [3], familiar from Boyz n the Hood, Jerry Maguire, and The People vs OJ Simpson, as Billy Flynn.
It’s his West End debut, and he’s the latest in a long line of stars to have taken on the role – David Hasselhoff and John Barrowman, as well as Richard Gere in the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Alongside him are a cast of Chicago old-hands – Ruthie Henshall as Mama Morton, Josefina Gabrielle as Velma, and Sarah Soetaert as Roxie.

But do Billy, Velma and Roxie still razzle-dazzle like they did 21 years ago? Does Gooding come good on his first London appearance? Can Chicago still seduce the critics, or has this classic gone stale?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews

Chicago – Show Me the Money

Cuba Gooding Jr and Sarah Soetaert in Chicago at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton [4]
Cuba Gooding Jr and Sarah Soetaert in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton

First things first. As a piece of stunt-casting, having Cuba Gooding Jr appear as Billy Flynn is right up there, even for the famously star-studded Chicago. The musical, in its various iterations, has seen such luminaries as Michael C Hall, Patrick Swayze and Jerry Springer take on the role. Does Gooding supply a star to remember?

“He’s… okay,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★ [5]). “He can’t really sing but he has a rumpled, unaffected charisma that at least makes him likeable. His presence hardly feels like event theatre, though: he’s here to get bums on seats, not fuck with the show’s formula.”

“Academy Award-winning acting chops are more than evident,” writes Lucinda Everett (What’s On Stage, ★★★ [6]). “But his husky singing voice struggles with the music’s range and the chorus soon become a blessing-cum-curse – a flawless bunch of number-nailing, sex-oozing pros that simultaneously buoy up and show up their American star.”

That’s the consensus in the reviews – that Gooding has got some style, but little substance, particularly when it comes to singing. “He’s a much better mover than he is a singer,” writes John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★ [7]), while Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★ [8]) calls him “affable rather than oily” with a voice “in imminent danger of giving out”.

“Oh dear,” sighs Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★ [9]). “It’s not great. At all. The hoarse voice is forgivable – he’ll get over that eventually – but what kills it is the lack of precision as soon as the musical phrases become remotely intricate. He can bash out a melody slowly, but beyond that he loses detail, fudges notes and hopes that his charming smile and knowingly cheap, cheery showmanship can get him through.”

“He reels in the laughs as the slick lawyer, and he sure does have that suave pizzazz you need to play the part, it’s just a shame his voice doesn’t suit the songs,” chimes Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★ [10]). “He has a naturally raspy voice, which is great when you’re playing a cocky seasoned lawyer, but it can be difficult to hear him as he strains to be heard over the band.“

Other reviews are kinder. Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★ [11]) reckoning he makes up for some “ordinary singing” with “bags of charm”, Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★ [12]) admiring his “slouchy panache”, and Ben Lawrence (Telegraph, ★★★★ [13]) calling him “the real deal”.

“It is easy for musical theatre actors to swim in the shallow end of their characters’ psychological states, but Gooding gives a complete performance, showing a touch of the failed vaudevillian who knows his best days are behind him,” says Lawrence.

“He’s a workaday basic singer,” writes Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★★ [14]), “but that doesn’t matter when you’re a slinky mover, delivering deadpan comic contempt, and always an exuberant stage presence, whether smothered in fan-dancers or giving ‘em the old razzle dazzle in a rain of sparkles.”

Chicago – Old-School Performances

Josefina Gabrielle (centre) in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton [15]
Josefina Gabrielle (centre) in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Gooding might not quite cut the mustard as Billy Flynn, then, but alongside him are a rack of Chicago veterans, who have appeared in the same show before, in one or other of its versions.

“All three main cast members are Chicago alumnae,” explains Bano. “Ruthie Henshall has played Roxie and Velma, and this time takes on Mama Morton, making her the only actor to have played all three roles. Both Josefina Gabrielle and Sarah Soetaert have been perennial Roxies, and while Soetaert sticks to the role, Gabrielle now plays Velma.”

Henshall isn’t quite suited to her part, Everett observing that “while her vocals soar, the thrum of Mama’s sexual power is noticeably muted”. Peters reckons that “she doesn’t come across as ruthless enough”, and Bano agreee, writing that “she doesn’t know what to do with Mama”.

Gabrielle and Soetaert are largely praised, though. “The show belongs, as it must, to those two publicity-hungry murderesses, who vie to outwit each other when it comes to column inches,” writes Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★ [16]).

“Gabrielle (who played Roxie for years) takes on Velma, delivering vampy swagger turned squirming desperation,” says Everett. “But Sarah Soetaert’s Roxie is my pick of the bunch, splicing the murderess’ hard-nosed ambition with a winning goofiness.”

“Gabrielle is compelling as the calculating, sneering chorine Velma, while Soetaert clowns around as Roxie, alternately giggly and fierce. Her comic mutability makes the moment when she realises that she could imminently be hanged all the more marked, and almost moving.”

There’s some love for Paul Rider’s Amos, too – “the best I have ever seen,” according to Purves – and for the big band orchestra, which remains on stage throughout.

“The lead actors all do their stuff, the ensemble is lively and the onstage band, under the direction of Ian Townsend, is exceptional,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★ [17]). “But, while it is pleasant to renew acquaintance with numbers such as All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, everything is exactly as I remember it from 1997.”

Chicago – All That Jazz

Sarah Soetaert in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton [18]
Sarah Soetaert in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This production of Chicago, directed by Walter Bobbie, has been around for ages. It began on Broadway in 1996, where it’s still going strong, and cloned itself into the West End in 1997, where it stayed for fifteen years. Part of its appeal, on top of regular celebrity casting, is its vintage design and choreography. How does it fare in front of fresh critical eyes?

Some critics think it’s as sexy as it ever was, Mountford calling it “a lithe and limber delight”, Purves praising it as “threateningly exhilarating” and Treneman calling it “cynical, cool, sophisticated.”

“The 14-piece orchestra is centre-stage, flanked by chorus line members in see-through skimpy black, sitting in chairs awaiting their cue. The dancing, sexy and strident, takes place in the constricted space between the musicians and us,” she writes. “Wrists flick, pelvises twist, shoulders shimmy, bodies twirl, sometimes with legs aloft, like ballet but better. Over and over again, you think, can hips really move like that?”

Most reviews, though, reckon the once-winning formula is coming apart at the seams. Billington writes that “it is beginning to resemble an animated corpse” and Shuttleworth reckons that “both style and content feel a little less this time around”.

“I’m all for reviving old musicals, but this one has not been imaginatively rethought,” Billington asserts. “The dance begins to feel not so much Fosse-ised as ossified.”

“It’s starting to show its age,” agrees Lukowski. “The aggressively sexy/‘sexy’ black mesh costumes feel like the paraphernalia of a bygone, lairier era. The commentary on the relationship between infamy and actual fame feels somewhat unsophisticated in the age of Trump. And like Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls, it just feels like it’s cock-blocking fresh takes on a piece that’s really too smart to spend the rest of eternity locked in 1996.”

“There’s something about that black and red colour scheme, the mesh shirts, the campy sleaze that, 21 years on, seems more parody than revolutionary,” writes Bano. “It’s funny that a piece about the transience of popularity is still exactly the same 21 years later, and still as popular as ever. But the musical is at odds with its production: one a fierce, vital satire on fame and patriarchy; the other a stiff, ossified antique.”

Chicago – Is it any good?

Cuba Gooding Jr in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton [19]
Cuba Gooding Jr in Chicago. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It’s pretty much exactly the same as it ever was, just with Cuba Gooding Jr. The Hollywood star can’t really sing, say the reviews, but he makes up to a degree with old-school charm and charisma. His co-stars fare better: Ruthie Henshall isn’t really suited to her part, but Josefina Gabrielle and Sarah Soetaert put in classy performances.

Elsewhere, not much has changed. This is still the same Chicago that whiled away 15 years in the West End and has clocked up even more on Broadway. For some critics, it’s a pleasure to have it back in town. Others, though, think we really should have moved on by now.