Sequins, leotards, bright lights and red lips. Distinctive is just one of the words that come to mind. Since it opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in 1996, it has caught the attention of more than just tourists roaming the West End. On its opening night it was described as a play that ‘is about the joy of seducing an audience that goes to the theater’ by the New York Times. It’s been around the world since and had a run that pretty much any show would be envious of. It’s no secret Chicago’s long legs and sequined tights have enthralled many a viewer from Tokyo to Holland. It’s had a good run but its time seems to have come, at least for now. This year the West End says goodbye to Chicago after 15 years, but if you haven’t yet had a chance to catch it, have no fear – the razzle-dazzle will continue touring the UK.
I sat in the charming Garrick Theatre with a bag of Maltesers and high expectations. Having never seen the film, I knew very little about the plot. As the houselights dimmed and the notorious first words were spoken ‘Murder, greed, corruption, exploitation…’, it wasn’t too difficult to see why it’s spawned what’s practically a cult following. It was difficult to decide whether the characters themselves, their voices or their tights were shiniest. The classic tunes All That Jazz and Roxie had audience members mumbling along, none too melodiously. In the three hours since, I have successfully pulled a muscle trying to kick as high as Velma Kelly, played by the impossibly long-legged Rachel McDowall. Her performance was mesmerizing, the strength and grace of her movements and performance complemented each other beautifully. Roxie in contrast was petite, and past all the adultery, murder and lies (or perhaps because of it) managed to get the audience rooting for her. Some of the accents were less than authentic, as some of the characters struggled with obviously English consonants. Nevertheless, the cast worked well as an ensemble – no one member stood out for good or bad reasons.
The incorporation of the orchestra into the set was particularly neat and made more than just a little bit of an impact on a show that is unabashedly all about the high-kicks, splits and devastatingly husky voices. The set was pleasingly simple though the black-on-black background became boring to watch after a while. It was presumably to exaggerate the sparkle and the sheer razzle-dazzle of it, but it allowed the tension to dip at times, especially with no scene or costume changes to mix things up. At least until the end, when the audience is blinded by, quite literally, a wall of glitter. The music ends the show on a high although the exhaustion of the actresses was palpable, something that lets the climax down that little bit. On the whole, the hype makes sense to me. Unabashed and unadulterated entertainment is often underestimated and in the case of this musical, takes on a life of its own.