In 1975 the iconic, dark and edgy, sexy musical Chicago (based on the play 'Chicago' by Maurine Dallas Watkins) was originally named Chicago- a vaudeville revue. The original creative team of John Kander & Fred Ebb (famous for the musical Cabaret and forty years of musical collaboration) produced the piece around the same time that another musical was about to hit the Broadway scene and swamp the Variety headlines and win acres of musical theatre awards – this was the tamer but enormously popular show called - A Chorus Line. It opened five days before Chicago.
At the time Chicago was seen as a success but met with a mixture of varied revues and perhaps seen, retrospectively, as well as before its time, due to the dark nature and perverse humour of its subject and the thrilling choreography and direction by Bob Fosse who dealt in steamy yet stylised minimalist dance movements. It was a style that nobody then was aware of and it was seen as difficult yet fascinating. Chicago the musical was violent and moody and the audience were expected to laugh at people being killed and be sympathetic with the perpetrators whilst, at the same time, imagining they (as an audience) were having a wonderful time at a Broadway show.
Although set in the 1920s it reflected the morality of what was happening in the mid 1970s in the USA and every type of debauchery and scandal that was taking place. For instance, the concept of honouring 'celebrity out of criminality'!? Scandalous! Who'd have thought that would make a popular musical? Why would anyone want to celebrate the morally bad folk getting away with murder? Yet this was done with such an underlining core of fun and sexy dark humour and somehow it worked and people loved it and continue to love it today so much so that it became a soar away success not only on the stage around the world but, also as a film version in 2005.
The new Chicago musical currently playing at Curve is directed by Paul Kerryson, the musical director is Ben Atkinson and the choreography by Drew McOnie and the multiple sets designed by Al Parkinson. Sound design and lighting design are by Ben Harrison and Philip Gladwell.
In musical terms this is a concept musical – not just a story with songs that end a scene followed by another song that ends another scene i.e. a traditional musical. A concept musical has numbers that comment on what is happening in the plot and the combined dance work visually illustrates what the motifs are and doubly demonstrates the character's motivations in a form that is often a pastiche in order to bring the point across in a theatrical way within pertinent musical and theatrical genres like ragtime or vaudeville. The dance beat and rhythms draw out the drama in a way that is enhanced and comprehensible to an audience theatrically. In Chicago there is an unreality and a stylisation in the portrayal of the major characters that lends the story a dramatic feel in these stories of corruption and murder. It sensationalises how a guilty party gets away with shooting her lover another more innocent victim hangs for a crime she didn't commit and celebrates the murderous actions.
Sandra Marvin as Mama Morton practically blows the roof off the theatre with her powerful rendition of 'When You're Good to Mama' and commands the stage with her presence every time she appears on stage.
David Leonard as has a sleazy manipulative authority as the crooked lawyer Billy Flynn and is assured in his vocal numbers such as Razzle Dazzle and All I Care About (is love) and he really comes into his own in the surreal court scene. Matthew Burrow brilliantly inhabits Amos, the pathetic husband of murderess Roxie Hart. Amos believes that he is so insubstantial as a human being that he is practically invisible. Burrow does a great job with a very plausible character interpretation and wins sympathy with his song Mr Cellophane. Most inspired is the choice of Adam Bailey as Mary Sunshine the newspaper reporter who follows the trials of both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and Bailey has a startlingly good singing voice.
The large stage is often dominated by dozens of hanging lights used to great effect and the set pieces of the County Jail and Speakeasy are strong. Furniture slides into place to create other venues such as the court or Billy Flynn's office or a bedroom. The lighting by designer Philip Gladwell is superb moving the story along and even blitzing the audience with hundreds of flashing camera bulbs as the journalistic frenzy builds as the body count grows.
This show is a hot ticket. If you can't get one just murder a friend who has one!
Runs until Saturday 18th January 2014
This review was originally published by www.thepublicreviews.co.uk on 5th December 2013.
Written by Phil Lowe.