Chicago is, unbelievably, based on a true story. Originally a stage play in 1926, Kander and Ebb (the team behind the current West End smash hit revival, Cabaret) turned it into a musical in 1975. It tells the story of Roxie Hart, awaiting trial for the murder of her lover, and her rivalry with fellow prisoner Velma Kelly for the attentions of super slick lawyer Billy Flynn and, most importantly, a fickle public eager for salacious gossip.
Chicago has been around for a long time. The original Broadway production transferred to the West End in 1979, but it is the 1996 Broadway revival version which has given the show such tremendous staying power. It opened in London in 1997 where it stayed for 15 years and has been touring almost continuously ever since. And it’s still an unusual and striking way to stage a musical. For a start the band (a hugely impressive 10 piece plus MD) takes centre stage in a set reminiscent of a court room. There is hardly any other set and performers sit around the edges on chairs watching the action when they are not involved themselves, as if, I suppose, in the public gallery of the courtroom.
Despite it being, effectively, almost a concert performance, the enormous strength of the score and the stylish production numbers make it a memorable and captivating show.
Djalenga Scott gets a great entrance in the opening number, rising up through the band to perform All That Jazz. She is a slick and elegant dancer with a powerful voice. She also showed great comic timing as her Velma is constantly out-witted by Roxie’s media manipulation skills. Faye Brookes, perhaps best known as Kate Connor in Coronation Street, is Roxie. Sparkly, sassy and with complete command of all the moves and tunes, she makes a terrifically watchable star. I would have to say though, that Scott has the slight edge in the dancing, but the difference only shows in the final number when the pair get to perform together.
This production has a particularly strong cast. Over the years various non-singers and even non-actors have been cast as both Mama Morton and hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn. But here we are treated to the great original Three Degree Sheila Ferguson as Morton and proper singer Russell Watson as Flynn. Ferguson has the easy authority and cynical world view to carry off Mama Morton with aplomb. Watson’s accent may have wandered a little and he’s not a natural mover (not that he’s really required to dance), but he’s convincing as a lawyer with money rather than justice as his driving focus and, of course, he sure can sing!
Ultimately the key to any musical’s success is its score, and Chicago is packed with numbers you probably know even if you’ve never seen the show – All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, to name just two. Thanks to the aforementioned on-stage band, they are given all the panache and power they need. It’s not that unusual to have the band on stage, but to give them centre stage throughout and have an MD who conducts without also having to play the keyboards, creates a whole new dynamic.
Chicago brings a true West End experience to the theatre with no compromises on quality in any department.
Chicago is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 23 April 2022 and then continues on tour.