It’s hardly Chicago’s fault – more a consequence of the show’s success and longevity – but 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.
A mixed offering when it premiered in 1975, the story of murderous chorus girls in Prohibition-era Chicago really came into its own when Walter Bobbie revived it in New York in 1996.
Since then it’s become a phenomenon, touring the UK for the last five years, sat in the West End for 15 years before that, running non-stop on Broadway in the meantime.
This is still the same production, minute by minute, as that which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 1997 – and it could really do with an update. While Kander and Ebb’s tightly integrated score and book, equating the seedy glitz of showbusiness with the vaudeville of the justice system, is still a thrill, this production feels slack, sluggish and awkwardly cast.
All three main cast members are Chicago alumnae: 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, usually excellent, doesn’t know what to do with Mama. She doesn’t sink her teeth into the part. 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.
Pulling power comes from Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr, making his West End debut – and oh dear. 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.
Besides Gooding, the cast is inexcusably white without even being able to make the usual piss-poor argument about ‘historical accuracy’ considering how diverse 1920s Chicago was.
In Bobbie’s staging, a large, raked podium occupies most of the stage with the orchestra sitting on it, so the actual playing space downstage is slender. Chorus numbers feel squashed as a result, too oversized for the area. That flatness reaches its nadir, ironically, during Razzle Dazzle, whose half-time-feel and plodding trombone bass are just a dash too slow.
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.