‘Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it great? Isn’t it swell?’
If I were asked these questions about the production of Chicago currently running at the New Theatre in Oxford, I would certainly give a positive answer.
Set in 1920s Chicago, the musical is centered around the figures of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two ambitious vaudevillians — and murderesses. At the time, the city was all about jazz and glamour, but also brimmed with corruption, treachery, and easy access to firearms. In order to gain popularity, the two cabaret stars turn their crimes into their selling point, working their way up from criminals to stars. The musical portrays a world where all that matters is fame, and you matter only in so far as you make news, or ‘you ain’t nobody’. The cynical plot has shocked generations of audiences thanks to its self-conscious meta-theatricality, and its unflinching presentation of American society, using old scandals to shine a less-than-favourable light on the present.
While the plot of Chicago is notorious, it is perhaps less well known that the story is based on the real figures of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, and was adapted for the stage in 1926 by a journalist, Maurine Watkins, who came across their scandalous stories. The play was then used as the basis for a Broadway musical in 1975, as well as for two renowned films – one with Ginger Rogers, the other starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, and Richard Gere.
The cast performing at New Theatre equally includes some prominent names. The leading roles were successfully taken by TV stars Hayley Tamaddon (Roxie) and Sophie Carmen-Jones (Velma). Also brilliant were West End and EastEnders actor John Partridge (Billy Flynn) and X Factor winner Sam Bailey (Matron ‘Mama’ Morton), who, incidentally, has been a prison warden in real life. The impressive cast were captivating throughout, but especially shone in the second act. Particularly remarkable were the performance of the song ‘Cell Block Tango’ , the scene of Roxie’s trial, and scenes involving the press. All the actors on stage impersonating journalists brilliantly conveyed the voracious appetite for piquant news.
The production kept the original set design with the band centre-stage, around and upon which some scenes are played. Designed to evoke a jury tribune, the presence of the instruments on stage also wittily broke the fourth wall at times. At the beginning of the second act, summoned by a whistle from Mama, the musicians were allowed ‘a moment of freedom’, which proved to be one of the most musically successful parts of the show. Benny’s request for ‘his exit music’ was humorous and, although less successfully, so was Amos’s, Roxie’s invisible husband. While in a handful of moments the stage might have given the impression of being empty, as the singers did not always sing centre stage, the presence of the band ensured a constant, powerful input of theatrical energy.
Sharp, sassy, and crisp, Chicago spans from moments of bitter humour to the most dazzling choreographies (such as the remarkable handling of the huge feathers in ‘All I Care About Is Love’). The musical has all you would expect from a Broadway production: great dancing, accomplished singing, and good-quality acting, sparkling on stage as much as the glitter of the characters’ costumes. This Chicago is an absolutely impeccable musical.