Chicago

Date 8th December 2018
Society University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society
Venue Council Chambers
Type of Production Musical
Director Scarlett Spicer / Jess Sohnstone
Musical Director Dexter Drown / Joe Hearson
Choreographer Emily Tandy

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Author: Kevin Proctor

‘Chicago’ is a musical theatre legend all by itself. It received an unfavourable response from its original Broadway production despite its star studied cast. After Bob Fosse’s death, the show was revived in 1996 and rocketed it to the success it so evidently deserved which inspired the adaptation of it into the film version which further shot ‘Chicago’ into commercial acclaim! Since then it’s become the longest-running American musical in both the West End and on Broadway. Numerous productions of the revival have continued to tour extensively in the United States and here in the UK and the revived production also sprung the inspiration for the revue show ‘Fosse’ which itself has become a staple in musical theatre history. Sadly, Bob Fosse never got to see the success of his much-adored ‘Chicago’! 

This plum line up of principal roles in Kander, Ebb and Fosse’s Vaudevillian musical are well cast. Jess Adams as Roxie Hart bears both studied fragility and raw ambition, while Georgina Rosser’s Velma Kelly maintains a vampish confidence that stays strong. Roxie exuded star quality singing, dancing and acting with gusto, she wasn’t the impish portrayal usually offered by the many who’ve interpreted the role before her, she had a soft exterior with a dark undercurrent giving a more naturalistic sense than caricature, a lovely touch.  Velma worked hard throughout her rendition which showed, she’s got some strong pipes and danced with knowhow but the sense of trying too hard made this performance rather intense which arguably appeared forced, nonetheless, the ability to portray the role was evident which in itself is wholly commendable.

Billy Flynn, the showbiz lawyer tasked with representing the pair of murderous choristers in 1920s Illinois, is played with a greasy, smooth-talking charm by Charlie White. This entire rendering was performed with ease and composure and delivered the humour at a desirable pitch which all mixed together to contribute to this impeccable interpretation, unquestionably the finest portrayal I’ve seen from Charlie.

One of the traits I adore about ‘Chicago’ is how no two productions are ever the same, any one of the principal players can steal the show and here was (sort of) no exception. Although there wasn’t exactly what one may refer to as a weak link in this principal line up, and although most of the leading players absolutely gave first rate performances throughout, for me, the show was split. Act I was snatched by this epic Matron Mama Morton thanks to Jess Stoddard who certainly didn’t hold back with her intimidating and playful rendition of ‘When You’re Good To Mama’. Yet, Act II belonged to Roman Armstrong’s original and inspired performance as Amos whose star turn in the vaudeville presentation was a magic act which worked exceptionally well for this character! 

For those familiar with this stage musical, it could be said that casting a female in the role of Mary Sunshine is somewhat of a cop out, however, my view is that the role should go to whoever would deliver the character/song the finest within your membership, should no male be able to convincingly handle it  and no one can deny that Helena Stanway did a sterling job of ‘A Little Bit Of Good’.

Thank You! Finally we get a show in this venue where the band belong on stage and in full view! It was terrific to see them and it’s how ‘Chicago’ should be done - with the band in full view and not awkwardly squished to the side or not quite tucked away in a corner. This score is one of my favourite musical theatre pieces and one I regularly indulge in - it’s bold, pacey and riddled with excitement! At times I did feel that tempos were a tad leisurely but this musical ensemble still produced an epic sound giving worthy credit to Kander & Ebb’s remarkable creation!

This was the second presentation I’ve seen in the Council Chambers Theatre since it’s undergone an unfavourable makeover. First of all I must stress that it’s excellent that the space has been invested in to make it a general theatre venue for the groups who regularly furnish it though it’s an enormous shame that the uninspired fixture of the space has now banished any scope for the creative staging we used to get from presentations in here. Most drastic of all, anyone sitting on floor level further back than the second row will have great difficulty in seeing anything – which is ludicrous! Thankfully, I was sat on the second row but I couldn’t help but sympathise for anyone further back who would not be able to see anything below the cast’s shoulder level and …should the cast ever sit down, it’s game over! The sooner this intolerable and immensely frustrating issue is addressed, the better.

The choreography was at times a feast for the eyes thanks to Emily Tandy’s work. As one may expect, the movement was a gracious homage to the genius himself – Mr. Bob Fosse – who has imprinted such a recognisable style onto all of his works it’d be unethical not to give a nod to his celebrated style in any production of ‘Chicago’. Yet, so much of the steps performed in this rendering were Emily’s own but with the inspiration of Fosse at its core which was impressive. Although the style was uniform throughout the ensemble the actual steps themselves were rarely in sync with their fellow cast members though I could see the effect being attempted and could wholly appreciate that Emily has worked with the range of abilities here, but nonetheless, it was a commendable achievement all the same! I fully support the idea of ‘Me & My Baby’ being presented as a satirical clownlike enactment as opposed to an accomplished dance display, tailoring the concept to the capabilities of your cast which is always a smart move and demonstrates a constructive approach, and, it was hilarious!

It is, however, a tremendous shame to have to repeat that it’s only the patrons on the front two rows (of floor level) who would have been able to fully appreciate any movement being performed in this show! It’s worth commenting that I would have been increasingly irritated if I’d purchased a ticket to see this production and couldn’t actually see let alone enjoy any of the movement! 

There was some excellent ensemble work that really made this show pop…particularly during the Courtroom scene which was brilliantly grasped and accomplished! Congratulations to Scarlett Spicer and Jess Johnstone (the Co-Directors) for this highlight of the production. The director duo hadn’t attempted to stamp an original concept onto their production, they delivered a homage to what ‘Chicago’ is, it didn’t need dressing up, “it ain’t broke so don’t fix it” approach which I have to concur with.

It’s often worthwhile for me to remind readers of my reviews that every production comes with its gripes be it a professional or amateur show, that’s irrelevant! Unfortunately, it’s my role to dissect and lay out the warts an’ all no matter how minor they may seem to be which is the burden of elimination and the responsibility of adjudication. Believe me when I say that any of the comments made here shouldn’t warrant any feeling of dejection or a sense of underachievement – regrettably I have to look for the faults, faults which can be found in anything if examined hard enough. But overall, regardless of the occasional grumble pinpointed above, I enjoyed this exciting, energised and astute production immensely. The entire cast, crew and committee of UMMTS should relish in this mammoth achievement.