This is the second time I have seen Chicago, the first being in the West End in 2002. I mention this because it somewhat affects my judgement of the show. From the opening number, All That Jazz, I became a bit misty eyed as my companion in London was my late mother, so the memories came flooding back of me and my best mate in the stalls with her unashamedly lusting over Marti Pellow, who was playing Billy Flynn. She may have been in her seventies but there is no law saying that you have to lower your standards as you get older. I haven’t, which is probably why I am living on my own!
The reason I was with mum on that occasion was that we were spending a couple of nights in the capital as I had been invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace – not bad for a kid from the post-war slums of East Leeds – and, as you get a plus one, there was no one else who came within a million miles of being considered.
Reminiscing out of the way, I settled down to see what difference there would be between a touring version of the show, with its scenery and props designed to be erected and dismantled each week in different spaces, and the bespoke fixtures and fittings available for a lengthy run in one theatre. It also made me appreciate the skill of the performers who have to adapt their dance routines to make the most of the stages which must vary in floor space from week to week. Speaking of the set, it was a bare stage with the orchestra positioned in a tiered bandstand at the back. A ladder appeared intermittently at one side of the stage which used to both humorous, and tragic effect.
The theme of the show is that of celebrity. It is set in 1920s Chicago, who’d have guessed, where murder was rife, not only amongst organised crime syndicates, but also the gangsters’ molls. Being good for circulation figures, murders committed by women grabbed the headlines and the more beautiful the perpetrator, the better the trial was covered, thus increasing sales even further. The play on which this Kander and Ebb musical is based, was written by Maureen Dallas Watkins who was a journalist specialising in the stories of these women.
The show opens with Velma Kelly, played by Djalenga Scott, who was in prison for murder and the darling of the tabloids, being joined in the clink by Roxie Hart, Faye Brookes, who was there for killing her lover. The two women shared the same lawyer, Billy Flynn, sung by Russell Watson, whose only objective was to make as much money as possible from his female clients so that he could take a percentage of their future earnings when he got them off the charge and they could cash in on their infamy.
Because Roxie’s crime was more salacious than Velma’s, Billy concentrated on the former’s defence and put the latter’s on the back burner. This obviously caused resentment between the two women and between Billy and Velma.
Needless to say, everything ends up well for everyone, except Hunyak, played by Hollie Jane Stephens, who started her dancing career at Northern Ballet Academy in Leeds, an Hungarian prisoner who becomes the first woman ever to be hanged in the jail.
The other main characters in the play are; Amos Hart, Roxie’s nondescript husband, whom she leaves as soon as she is released from prison, played touchingly by Jamie Baughan, and Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, a mentor to the girls – Sheila Ferguson. B E Wong played Mary Sunshine, a philanthropist with a surprising secret.
Djalenga Scott and Faye Brookes were both superb in their roles, and I must confess to a Marti Pellow moment when I saw Ms Scott, their singing was wonderful and dancing well up to the standard of the company who supported them. Their depictions were also nicely nuanced with knowing facial and physical gestures Sadly the same can’t be said for Russell Watson whose voice was as honed as you would expect from a trained classical singer, but whose dialogue delivery left something to be desired. I also think that even I could have made a better job of dancing than he managed, and I am a 72 year-old awaiting a double knee-replacement! He didn’t seem to have an ounce of rhythm in his body. Probably why his his million-selling first album was simply called ‘The Voice’.
The format of the show was as I remembered it with the story being told as a series of set pieces rather than a continuous narrative with songs interspersed. It worked very well and the occasional breaking down of the fourth wall gave the audience a feeling of belonging. This was especially evident at the opening of the second act when the orchestra appeared without singers and were introduced one by one by Musical Director Andrew Hilton in order to perform their own party piece. This got the audience clapping along and cheering as if we were in a Burlesque theatre rather than the stately Grand.
The company of dancers and singers were excellent, looking like a collection of macho bikers and models for Victoria’s Secret.
I must say that I enjoyed the evening very much and was fortunate enough for there to have been such a lengthy gap between my two experiences that the original was more or less expunged from my memory.
Proving that life imitates art, in the same way that Amos Hart had been dumped by Roxie on her release from jail, not long after we had seen the show, my mother dumped Marti Pellow for Ronan Keating. This was nothing to do with his performance in the musical, she just thought it was time to trade him in for a newer model!
Chicago is at The Grand Theatre Leeds until Saturday 14th May. For more details and to book please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/chicago/
All images provided by Leeds Heritage Theatres with photographs by Tristram Kenton