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"Sassy, slick, sexy": Chicago at Sheffield Theatres

Reviewer Paul Szabo takes a look at Chicago, currently being performed at the Lyceum, and compares 1920s vaudeville to Instagram today. 

Lee Mead in Chicago
Paul Coltas

Set in the seedy underbelly of the 1920s vaudeville scene, Chicago sees murderous chorus girl Roxie Hart battle for both the spotlight and the headlines with fellow inmate Velma Kelly, in a rivalry that only heats up when Roxie is favoured over Velma by the slick, if smarmy, lawyer, Billy Flynn. Flynn manipulates the media with tales of a repentant religious girl (which couldn’t be further from the truth) and spins every possible angle to get the media on side.

With a little stirring of the tension from the prison’s matriarch, Matron “Mamma” Morton (who has her own sideline in backhanded bribes) and with the support of her loyal, if gullible, husband, Amos, Roxie heads for trial with dreams of using her notoriety as a springboard to her own headline act. But, as far as she is concerned, she isn’t going to let a little thing like the chance that she may be hanged get in the way of getting her name on the front page of the newspapers.

Faye Brookes as Roxie Hart in Chicago
Tristram Kenton

Chicago plays out as pretty much a sing-through musical and the show remains as sassy, slick, sexy and superb as it has always been. This, along with Cabaret, is perhaps the best work of Kander and Ebb, and the Bob Fosse choreography – all flicks of the wrists, hip thrusts, subtle movements, finger clicking and more jazz hands than you thought was humanly possible in one show – is recreated beautifully here by Gary Chryst and continues to be absolutely spectacular. Simplicity rules in this production and the staging transforms you from one venue to another with little more than a bowler hat, a chair and a lighting change. The characters, all dressed in black, lace and leather, look stylish and sexy, and the production values are as good as they come.

When this production was announced, the cast initially included Gemma Collins as Mamma Morton, but she had to step down due to an injury before the start of the tour. However, this was a casting decision that had split theatre goers down the middle, with some demanding refunds for tickets, whilst others welcomed the reality TV personality – but, as the show itself highlights, therein lies the fickle nature of fame.

The production, however, has assembled a terrific cast, talented and polished. And when you consider the leads, the ensemble and the orchestra, there was not one weak link amongst them. Djalenga Scott excelled as Velma, from the opening number, “All That Jazz”, to the closing scenes; her magnetic stage presence was undeniable. Faye Brooks (known to most from Coronation Street) held her own against such a strong opposite, and Michelle Andrews stepped in for Brenda Edwards as Mamma Morton with aplomb.

Having seen this musical many times over the years, this current tour is hands down the best version of the show I have seen.

One of the things I love about musical theatre is that it often shows you that sometimes things change very little over the years. Chicago, first performed in 1975, pulls no punches when it comes to its dealings with the fleeting nature of the cult of celebrity and those who will do anything for their time in the public eye. Whilst the story centres on the 1920s murderesses trying to get their name in the paper by any means necessary, if you replace the crimes of the characters with the contestants on Love Island and switch out the newspapers for Instagram, it’s easy to see that little has changed; and, as Velma Kelly finds out in the show, there is always someone new to come along and push you out of the spotlight.

Equally, you don’t have to look too far back in the news archives to find high-profile celebrity court cases where headlines and social media campaigns have waged war on one party or the other – not too dissimilar from the media manipulation displayed by Flynn in the show. As I say, it often shows you that sometimes things change very little over the years.

With terrific songs, superb staging and perfect performances, Chicago is at the Lyceum Theatre until 9 July 2022 and is an evening of thoroughly entertaining, top notch, West End quality theatre in the heart of Sheffield.

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