The sparkling new West End production is faithful to the original. A little too faithful perhaps.
After little under six years away from the capital’s stages, Chicago is back. The Phoenix Theatre have pulled off a bit of a coup in getting an Oscar-winning actor to make his first West-End appearance in the latest version of the revival, but casting Cuba Gooding Jr as the big draw still feels a little odd. Not in a nudge-nudge, Quentin Letts way; he’s a completely brilliant Billy Flynn, smooth and flippant enough to make the heartstring-tugging lawyer likeable, which is a pretty big achievement for a Prohibition-era Max Clifford. Instead, it’s a slightly strange decision because he’s only on stage for about a third of the play. Gooding Jr’s charisma makes it the Billy Flynn Show, leaving it a little flat on occasions when he’s not around.
Still, when he actually is on stage, he’s completely infectious to watch. This is despite the fact he barely breaks into a sweat throughout the whole evening. He waltzes around, hands in the pockets of his dinner jacket, flirts with the idea of dancing while the rest of the cast blossom around him. His voice is soulful and a bit gravelly, hardly what you’d call showstopping. This isn’t an ultra-demanding, thespy journey back to the London stage to rediscover the craft of acting, à la Bryan Cranston or Andrew Garfield. This looks like someone who’s already got the Oscar in his downstairs toilet and wants to spend the next three months frolicking about on stage in a greatest-hits musical. And who can blame him? We’d definitely do the same if we were in his position.
In the main though, the rest of the cast, or you know, the actual main characters, do manage to pick up the slack when he’s not around. Sarah Soetaert is a deceivingly coquettish, tit-shimmying Roxie Hart, with the yankee drawl and bouncing blonde curls of a young Dolly Parton. Velma Kelly, played by Josefina Gabrielle, is sultry and smouldering in equal measures, although probably suffers the most from Gooding Jr’s over-inflated status.
Then there’s the question of how you produce a musical when most of the audience are already so familiar with Roxie and Velma’s quest to achieve sequin-splattered infamy off the back of their violent crimes. Many will have seen it before in some capacity, even if it is a drag queen rendition of Cell Block Tango in the backroom of the Brewers. So do you just give them the old razzle-dazzle or do you play around with it a bit? Well, it’s very much the former in this staging. This version could have been put on anywhere, anytime in the past 40 years and, aside from the casting of Gooding Jr, nobody would really bat an eyelid. It’s an old-school celebration of musical theatre, with the penultimate Hot Honey Rag number still using Bob Fosse’s original choreography to charming effect.
The only problem with this retro approach is that you’re often whipped out of a fuzzy reverence with some almost laughably low-budget effects. For the infamous Hungarian rope-trick, a noose is just fly-tipped onto the stage in a will-this-do manner and it all has to be clunkily explained out loud by one of the backing dancers. In another bit, there’s a burst of confetti at the apex of a song, but it gasps out in the miserable fashion of your local pub paying lip-service to New Year’s Eve. There’s not much of the innovation present that you can find in other West-End musicals, so it can feel a little dated in places.
The stage set-up feels a little off too. The Phoenix Theatre is pretty small as it is, but the band, excellent and unshowy as they are, take up the majority of the stage, leaving only a small strip for the rest of the cast to play around in. This can work to the show’s advantage in the busier scenes, such as the galloping reconstructions in the court room scenes, but at other times leaves people looking constricted and a little uncomfortable, noticeably during what should be a commandeering Mama in her introductory song, When You’re Good to Mama. One of the group sat next to me observed that even if the band were pushed back just a metre of two, it wouldn’t feel so cramped. (That’s all there is really to being a critic: listening intently to the opinions of those around you and garnishing with some flowery adjectives!)
When it comes down to it though, you don’t really need us to tell you why you should go and see Chicago. It’s a bit like hearing the opening organ salvation of Like a Prayer on the dance floor, or finding that Hot Fuzz is on ITV2 again. It’s undeniably warm and familiar, and you’ll have the classic Kander and Ebb repertoire ringing round your ears for days after. But being this closely acquainted to the original material means The Phoenix’s production does threaten to cross over into unimaginativeness. Whether you think it manages to stave this off, or if it even bothers you, will depend on your fondness for the golden age of musicals.
Chicago is at The Phoenix Theatre until 6th October.