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REVIEW: CHICAGO, the Musical at The Everyman Theatre

CHICAGO the Musical at the Everyman Theatre

Chicago, the Musical
by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse

The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Monday, 28 February 2022

Rating: ★★★★★

“The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be … Roxie!” sings fame-hungry Roxie Hart.  Back in 1924, the name of Roxie’s real-life counterpart, Beulah Anan, was indeed on everybody’s lips.  Described as “the prettiest woman ever charged with murder in Chicago”, “Beautiful Beulah” was scandalously acquitted of shooting her lover.  Beulah’s limelight was, however, stolen just twelve days later, when “handsome divorcée” and glamorous showgirl Belva Gaertner (who inspired the character of Velma Kelly) was controversially acquitted of a similar crime.  Beulah and Belva’s attractiveness was thought to have influenced the verdicts of their (all-male) juries.  As one newspaper observed, “Pretty Girls Get Free, Ugly Ones Sent to Pen”.

The musical Chicago is based on the 1926 play of the same name by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins.  Written in 1975 and set in the roaring ’20s – the age of Al Capone, prohibition and jazz – Chicago is still a vibrantly modern show.  The issue of fame and its effects is as relevant today as it ever was.  But no-one goes to see Chicago for a lecture on the nature of celebrity.  We go for John Kander’s jazz-inflected tunes, Fred Ebb’s witty lyrics, and Bob Fosse’s stylish choreography.  And, above all, we go for the razzle dazzle.

When it comes to pizazz, this production doesn’t disappoint.  From the moment the band strikes up, and Djalenga Scott (as Velma) and company begin to perform All That Jazz with suave, smouldering poise, we know we’re witnessing something special.

Chicago has the format of a show-within-a-show: the fourth wall is repeatedly broken; the on-stage band and conductor are an ever-present reminder that this is showbiz, kid; and scenes are introduced as if they were vaudeville acts.

This meta-format is cleverly exploited by the casting of celebrities in leading roles.  Faye Brookes (formerly of Coronation Street) is a driven, amoral Roxie, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants – although she does engage our sympathies with a touching monologue.  Her mercenary lawyer, Billy Flynn, is played with commanding physical presence and light-footed grace by “The People’s Tenor” Russell Watson, whose classically-trained voice is a thrill to listen to.  Sheila Ferguson (of pop group The Three Degrees) gives a relaxed, louche performance as Mama Morton, the doyenne of “Murderess’ Row”.  Her delivery of When You’re Good To Mama and her duet with Djalenga Scott in Class are, well, utter class.

But, for me, the two outstanding performers aren’t (yet) household names.  Jamie Baughan gives a touching performance as Roxie’s husband, gullible cuckold Amos, who in Mister Cellophane laments the fact that others tend not to notice him.  He ends the song with a forlorn, heartbreaking “Hope I didn’t take up too much of your time”.  But the most compelling performer is Djalenga Scott, who brings poise and control to the role of Velma.  Her singing, dancing and accent are technically flawless, and her portrayal of a glamorous psychopath – Velma killed her husband and sister in flagrante delicto – is chillingly convincing.

Two minor quibbles: some performers’ accents occasionally wandered east – about 4,000 miles east – of Illinois; and there was a slightly subdued air to the show.  I’m not sure whether this was because of the seriousness of the themes – adultery and murder – or because the performers felt constrained by the available space (especially given that the rear half of the stage was occupied by the large dais on which the band performed).

I’ll leave the last word to Beulah Anan: “Gin and guns get you in a dickens of a mess.”  Please bear this in mind when you’re planning your next night out.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including interval)
Chicago, the Musical runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 5 March 2022.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
1 March 2022

Photos credit: Jeremy Daniel

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