“May I offer some criticism?”
On my fifteenth birthday, my parents got me the DVD of the film Chicago. The one with Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger. I’d never seen it. I remember watching it and falling in love with it. The aesthetics of the film – going from the humdrum ordinary to these glitzy jazzy numbers with insane choreography – just blew me away. I became obsessed. Watched it almost every day and started trying to learn the choreography to Cell Block Tango.
Funnily enough, a few years later I played Six in the Cell Block Tango in a sixth form showcase. Honestly, it was like all my dreams had come true. I was channelling my inner Velma Kelly, high-kicking and strutting my way across the stage.
I think the film has ruined the musical. It did for me, anyway. I think a lot of us associate Chicago ultimately with sex and scandal and seduction. The Cell Block Tango is seen as sexy, not a number where the women have funny laughs and seem a little bit unhinged. I forgot how Brechtian and Vaudeville the production was going to be. We’re not caught up in a narrative, but a show where each actor performs a style of vaudeville number. From the storytelling magic of Paul Rider’s ‘Mister Cellophane’ which almost has me in tears, to Mazz Murray’s commanding ‘When You’re Good to Mama’, each number tells a story and gives us an insight into the Vaudeville world which Roxie dreams of being a part of.
This production, currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre, however, takes us back to the basics of Vaudevillian performance. The live band are fantastic – I love their prominence on the stage. Instead of being tucked away like in most musicals, they are the centrepiece. The actors talk to them, make jokes with them, and the I tend to watch them more than the performers – they’re having a right old ball in the entr’acte and I wanna be up there with them!
Retaining the Fosse-style choreography by Ann Reinking (re-created by Gary Chryst in this production) is what keeps this show alive and sets it apart from the film. It’s not lavish and exaggerated; it’s focused on miniscule movements. The nod of the head, the outsretching of fingertips. I guess Chicago is more about preciseness, and the pristine performances of Vaudeville than the spectacle of a show.
I know a lot of people will be brought to the show by the star-casting of Alexandra Burke (as Roxie) and Duncan James (as Billy Flynn), and to be honest, I was naturally curious about what their performances would be like. Burke brings pop-vocals to the role of Roxie, and certainly has the subtle comedic chop for some of the lighter moments. Her delivery of the monologue which precedes her solo ‘Roxie’ is engaging and warm, and she’ll only continue to grow into performing it. James’ Billy Flynn is full of smarmy charm as he plays the ringmaster of the court proceedings.
Naturally, the show may not meet expectations if you’re looking for a replica of the beloved film. However, if you want to see the craft of show-business at it’s most bare and jazzy, then Chiacgo is certainly the show to see – the band and the choroegraphy will knock your socks off!