Chicago opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 2018, having run in London since 1997. The charming Duncan James brings a new maturity to a role he first played more than a decade ago. Here he is joined by X Factor star Alexandra Burke (who brings a shining charisma to her rather too hard-edged interpretation of Roxie) Laura Tyrer (excellent but underused as Velma) and Mazz Murray (striking the perfect balance of warmth and steeliness as Mama Morton). The volubly appreciative audience appeared to be in consensus that Paul Rider stole the show as the delightfully pathetic Amos.
This stripped-back production places the orchestra fully on stage, creating a more intimate and cabaret-style experience, but severely reducing the playing space. As a consequence many of the dance numbers felt constrained, the Cell Block Tango taking place entirely on chairs, and one number performed with Burke not moving from a ladder. I am a bigger fan of dance than of musicals generally, and I found the relative lack of big dance numbers disappointing (my companion, who is a huge fan of musicals and of Chicago especially, found this even more disappointing). There are some excellent moments, and the cast are clearly talented dancers, but the original Fosse choreography in the final Hot Honey Rag number did rather put the rest of staging to shame.
I have to admit despite my stage school chorus brat beginnings, I am not a regular audience member at musicals. I have not seen Chicago before either on stage or screen and I was pleasantly surprised by the meat of the story and the depths of the subtext. The show touches on concepts like the easy commodification of the female body, female sexuality, and violence, the ways in which women are dominated yet not necessarily victimised by patriarchal society, and is amazingly prescient in predicting the rise of shock value flash-in-the-pan celebrity culture. It’s always enjoyable to see a show where the women characters so completely take centre stage. There’s a fascinating essay to be written on the gender politics of Chicago. This is not the place for that essay, but the production must be praised for not pulling punches in exploring these subtexts, and in integrating serious themes with a thoroughly entertaining show.
Chicago is on at the Phoenix Theatre until 5 January https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/chicago/phoenix-theatre/