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chicago - alexandra theatre, 28/09/2006

simon gray - 2006-09-28, 13:02:41

Go and stand on New Street holding a clipboard and ask passers-by if they could name any composers of musical, and the chances are, depending on their age, the overwhelming replies would be either 'Rogers & Hammerstein' or 'Andrew Lloyd-Webber'. If they're a discerning shopper they might reply 'Stephen Sondheim', but if they were that discerning they'd be more likely to describe his work as opera rather than musical anyway. 

Alternatively, if you asked them to name any musicals themselves you would likely get quite a few saying 'Chicago'. But curiously, if you asked them if they could name any musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb pretty much most people would just give you a blank look in response. Somehow, despite being responsible for two of the best-known musicals of the late-20th century,Cabaret, and Chicago, the names of Kander and Ebb themselves seem not to trip off the tongue of the Man on the Moseley Omnibus the way others do. 

Since the revival of the show in the late 90s it's barely been off the stage, and now makes a welcome return to the Alex. 

It's the classic story - girl meets boy, girl fills boy full of lead, girl does what she can not to swing for it. A classic story needs classic lines, and "I gotta pee" has to win the Award for the Most Classic Line After a Murder. 

Unlike many musicals, Chicago does actually have a reasonably strong plot, backed with a solid score, and dance routines (originally choreographed by Bob Fosse) which are integral to the telling of the story rather than merely being eye-candy. The show is broadly satirical, not only sending up the format of musical theatre itself, but also a satire on the cult of celebrity - especially the pseudocelebrities who are famous not for actually achieving anything, but just famous for being famous. Remarkably prescient, for a musical which premiered in 1975, based on a play dating back to 1926!

Jennifer Ellison, best known to television audiences for being Emily Shadwick in Brookside is the archetypal wannabe Roxie Hart, and Dawn Spence slinks around the stage as the Vaudeville old-hand Velma Kelly; both ably supported by George Asprey as slippery smooth-talking lawyer ("Let's just say, if Jesus Christ was in Chicago today and he had $5000, things would have been different") Billy Flynn, and Katy Secombe as the miss fix-it head warder Mama Morton; after the 2002 film of the show it's difficult to imagine anybody other than Queen Latifah in the role, but Secombe does a fair job, though unless you know she's a warder rather than a prisoner already it's not so clear here. 

The current production has the fairly innovative step of putting the band not down in the orchestra pit as usual, but right there on the stage in the middle of the action. This could have led to two problems - a much-reduced space for the actors to perform in, and a much greater need for amplification for the singers. In the case of the former, it wasn't a problem at all, and the sound reinforcement for the singers was perfectly tasteful and unobtrusive. Katalin's performance of her famous Hungarian rope trick didn't quite have the impact it might normally have, but I wonder if given news events of earlier this week it was toned down a little on grounds of taste. 

All in all, definitely a quality night out, and have fun annoying your colleagues with regular outbursts of "& all that jazz" the day after!

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