Review - Chicago (Phoenix Theatre)

In mid-1920s Chicago, chorine turned housewife Roxie Hart is arrested for shooting her lover, and joins the merry murderesses locked up in the Cook County Jail, under the watchful eye of corrupt prison matron Mama Morton. In the town of Chicago murder is a form of entertainment, and Roxie soaks up her new found publicity, much to the annoyance of fellow killer Velma Kelly. However, with the threat of capital punishment looming, there's more at stake for the Illinois jailbirds than just front page stories.

Sarah Soetaert (Roxie Hart) and the ensemble of Chicago
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
In 2018, there is indisputably a growing demand for boundary breaking musical theatre, addressing topical issues, with modern musical stylings and eye popping visuals. And 20 or so years ago Chicago ticked all of those boxes with bells on. When it debuted in New York in 1975 it shocked audiences with its darkly comedic plot and unapologetically sensual dance sequences courtesy of choreographic legend Bob Fosse. However, what was once arguably a pinnacle of fresh and fierce musical theatre feels rather more toothless nowadays. 

That being said, Chicago certainly still makes for entertaining viewing. Fosse's iconic choreography, although not very affronting by today's standards, is as quirky and distinctive as ever, and Kander and Ebb's instantly recognisable tunes are a toe tapping audible treat. Chicago is a perfectly safe bet, which evidently has enough mainstream appeal to warrant a West End revival just 3 years after a UK tour. 

The musical's reputation for stunt casting is also being upheld, with Academy Award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. taking on the role of silver tongued lawyer Billy Flynn. Unfortunately, despite his undeniable on-screen successes, he looks rather out of depth on stage. In a performance which swings between listless and manic, Gooding Jr. lacks the gravitas needed to mesmerise the rabid Chicago press and beguile the jury, and vocally he seems rather unsure of himself too. He fares better in his brief dance sequences, but Billy Flynn's musical numbers are some of Chicago's standout moments, and it's a shame that they don't pop as much as they should, despite the best efforts of the sizzling on stage band, under the watchful eye of Musical Director Ian Townsend. 

Cuba Gooding Jr and the ensemble of Chicago
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Sarah Soetaert fares much better as Roxie Hart, in a cutesy performance interspersed with excellent thuggish embellishments. Josefina Gabrielle is also excellent as the more hardened criminal Velma Kelly, whilst in the small but notable role of Mary Sunshine A.D Richardson is abundantly entertaining. Additionally, amongst the immensely watchable ensemble, Abramo Ciullo makes a hilariously notable mark as the Jury, multi roling his way through 6 brilliant characters over the course of one song. 

Chicago will always have a place in musical theatre lovers' hearts, and no one could deny the immense impact the original production has had on the musicals which succeeded it, but with a wealth of exciting new musical theatre to be found in Fringe and Regional theatres today, as well as a premium crop of new musicals currently making waves on Broadway, this revival feels slightly stale and unnecessary. It's an entertaining night out for sure, but sadly lacks much of the thrilling fizzle it once possessed.