The longest running musical revival is back, celebrating its 21st anniversary. But does this version of Chicago match up to its predecessors? Daniel Perks finds out.

Oh, the windy city – in the 1920s it was overrun with scintillating sin and celebrity scandal. Vaudeville stars murdered lovers and became even more famous; defence lawyers were the top of the pecking order and jailors were able to fashion their own business empire behind those iron bars. Well, that’s the story according to Chicago anyway – but as this revival is celebrating its 21st birthday, and the film version is one of the most celebrated pieces of musical filmmaking in history, most people will be well aware of the plot. The issue with this production is that it doesn’t match up to the heady mix of jazz and liquor that its predecessors provided.

Chicago Phoenix Theatre

Emma Harris, Nicola Coates, Chelsea Labadini, Michelle Antrobus, Natalie Bennyworth & Frances Dee (image courtesy of Tristram Kenton)

Stacey Haynes is the director responsible for recreating Bob Fosse’s original unique vision in this revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s work, and she does so accurately. The choreography, originally by Ann Reinking and presided over here by Gary Chryst, is sharp and snappy – the ensemble hit their marks in Fosse’s trademark style. It’s familiar and comforting to see this beautifully angular movement return to the West End.

Equally comforting is the set, bringing a gaggle of gregarious musicians back onstage with wah wah mutes and raspy growls, under the sensitive and rousing leadership of MD Ian Townsend. John Lee Beatty’s work is a sight for sore eyes, striking in its black box simplicity. As Velma Kelly (Josefina Gabrielle) rises from the central console to begin her opening number, All That Jazz, a nostalgic sigh ripples through the audience consciousness.

Chicago Phoenix Theatre

Josefina Gabrielle & ensemble (image courtesy of Tristram Kenton)

The problem of course is exactly this reminiscence, a cosiness that envelops the whole of the Chicago production. Because by its very nature, this show should be shocking, salacious and highly sexual. It should rouse us from our seats with carnal desire, drawn into its intoxicating world like a moth to a flame. All the elements are there – songs, choreography, a strong ensemble with mischievous glints in their eyes and a whole host of flesh on show. So, what is missing?

In this case, surprisingly enough, it’s the lead performers.

Chicago Phoenix Theatre

Cuba Gooding Jr & ensemble (image courtesy of Tristram Kenton)

The six stars are no strangers to the boards, indeed most of them are veterans on the Chicago circuit itself. In many ways, that’s the problem – they’ve lost their spark, their hunger for these roles. They seem to be going through the well-executed motions, lacking in hutzpah or in heart. A series of on-pitch and assured vocals (with the exception of Hollywood star Cuba Gooding Jr., who sounds as though he’s smoked 20 a day for the last 20 years) are to be expected from such musical theatre glitterati; equally so is the characterisation, movement and interaction. But everything is too polished – it lacks animosity, raw energy and unbridled emotion. This Chicago is prim and proper when it should be down and dirty.

Chicago Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Soetaert & ensemble (image courtesy of Tristram Kenton)

The issue in particular can be found with the three leading ladies, each of whom has played the role of Roxie Hart previously. For this revival, Sarah Soetaert takes centre stage, an effortless comic fakery to the blonde bimbo who naively shoots first and worries later. Soetaert is a clown of a performer and the most genuine in her portrayal – this Roxie can equally be a marionette in We Both Reached For the Gun as she can a seducing showgirl in Hot Honey Rag. Soetaert is in many ways a contrast to Gabrielle, who plays the counter in Velma Kelly. Gabrielle has previously played Roxie on the circuit and it shows – her Velma lacks venom or vitriol when ousted as the It Girl. Gabrielle is the dancer of the two, enough to make it clear that Soetaert’s choreography isn’t quite up to scratch.

From the two loveable villains in Chicago to the matron who holds the keys – Ruthie Henshall takes the role as both character and performer. And yet her Mama Morton feels too perfected, it lacks the conniving streak that would drive this character to run her prison like a corporate empire. Henshall has now played all three ladies, two on both Broadway and in the West End. In this production, she lacks the charisma that Gooding Jr. oozes so effortlessly – he may not be a singer, but he’s every inch the preening Billy Flynn.

Chicago Phoenix Theatre

Cuba Gooding Jr & Sarah Soetaert (image courtesy of Tristram Kenton)

Chicago is well sung – the three female leads have such similar tones that in unison they sound disturbingly like one single vocal line. It is well danced, and the acting is competent enough to carry the show through two hours. But it doesn’t sizzle, spark or hiss with intent. Instead it’s more like a reassuring hug – comforting but not captivating.

 

 

★★★☆☆

Chicago runs at the Phoenix Theatre, currently booking until 6 October 2018. For further information, please visit the show website.