We all know that Chicago is Bob Fosse’s signature piece, embodying everything he had tried to do on stage for almost twenty years. It opened in 1975, and has played somewhere around the world ever since (49 years!!!) but is it too soon for yet another revival (this time of the 1996 Broadway production, already 18 years old) when it is only four years since we saw the last national production? If you’re not a mad Fosse fan you might be tempted to say “way too soon” … but for the rest of us, “there’s no such thing as too much Fosse.”
And Fosse it still is…almost step for step, move for move, despite the claim that it has been re-choreographed in his style by his muse, the great Ann Reinking. Fosse is Fosse, unmistakable, instantly recognisable, and brilliant even in its stillness.
There can’t be anyone who doesn’t know the story of the show - the parable of pride coming before a fall, the price of fame and the fickleness of the public. Personality cults are even more prevalent now than they were when the original play was written almost 100 years ago, and the 1975 reworking foreshadowed what we face now almost half a century on. Wasn’t there some bloke who ran for office in the US claiming he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue (sic) and shoot someone in cold blood, and no-one would lift a finger? Well, he was only half right - they would actually applaud and re-elect him. So, in the corrupt 1920s, murder was entertainment - until a bigger, more heinous crime came along. Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were just two wannabes scrambling for fame in any way they could.
Once again, our ensemble proves to be the star turn in a show full of star turns. They are all true triple threats, brilliant in every aspect and boasting such luminaries as Ethan Jones (I’m a big fan), multi-award winning Nathan Pinnell and the marvellous Romina Villafranca. The entire ensemble is extraordinary.
The principals are not far behind. Lucy Maunder has always been known as one of our “sweet” musical theatre leading ladies, but she pulls out all the stops to give us a Roxie Hart who is vulnerable and a dreamer, as well as a fiercely ambitious schemer. We haven’t seen a Roxie this complete since Nancye Hayes’ original Roxie in Australia in 1981. (Interestingly, THAT production was choreographed by our own great Ross Coleman… not Fosse). Maunder is a delight from start to finish and there are moments when she is genuinely touching.
Zoe Ventoura is primarily a screen performer (haven’t we all loved her on television?), and could well afford to bring a larger presence to the stage, adding more venom and chutzpah to the vile but desperate Velma, and emphasising the stark differences between her and Roxie. Velma is more lethal than ambitious and some extra edge and raunchy hardness would work wonders. On the plus side, she looks sensationally like Reinking, with legs that go on forever, brilliant lines, and strong dancing and vocal skills.
Despite low energy levels in the first act, the stage bursts into life when the classy and charismatic Anthony Warlow makes his entrance. Boy, does he know his stuff. Every move, every inflection is pure gold. In 1986 a 25-year-old kid called Warlow stepped from opera into musical theatre as Sky Masterton in Guys and Dolls. With a voice to die for, he was nevertheless a little stiff, gauche and naïve on stage, allowing the great Ricky May (as Nicely Nicely) to sweep the floor with him. But Warlow is one of those artists that just gets better with every outing. His acting is always totally credible and he owns the stage at every entrance. He truly is a superstar and he and Maunder are simply superb together in “We both reached for the gun”, their ventriloquist routine is the best I have ever seen in six productions of this iconic show.
Peter Rowsthorn gives us an endearing Amos, whom we want to hug, and brings the house down with Mister Cellophane. Last but not least, Asabi Goodman has a fabulous voice and certainly LOOKS right as Matron “Mama” Morton….but again I longed for a bigger presence, a more raunchy and ruthless character. Only Stephen Valeri, as Mary Sunshine, reminds us that the 1920’s was called “Roaring” for a reason, and theatre is MEANT to be larger than life in all respects. The role allows him to push the envelope vocally into keys that don’t actually exist! But it becomes apparent with every production that the surprise element is long dead and this character needs a re-think.
Lastly, three cheers for the fabulous 14-piece band led by James Simpson. Quality playing from some terrific musicians really made the show memorable. No doubt Fosse would be glad to know that his vision lives on.
Photographer: Jeff Busby