The second longest-running musical on Broadway, with six Tony awards, two Olivier awards and a Grammy, the Opera House stage tonight is no place for amateurs as Chicago returns to Manchester. Fortunately, it’s clear right from the off that this will be one polished production.
Set in jazz age Chicago and based on a 1926 play by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about the real-life criminals she wrote about, we are introduced to Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two fame-obsessed murderesses, one a washed up vaudeville star guilty of murdering her husband, the other a wannabe celebrity in prison for bumping off her lover.
Former Coronation Street star Faye Brookes, back on home turf, is delightfully impish as Roxie and the perfect foil to the hardened, cynical teacher murderess Velma Kelly (Djalenga Scott). Sheila Ferguson, of The Three Degrees fame, as Mama Morton also nails the part of the laconic and openly corrupt prison warden, who befriends her charges of her purely in order to relieve them of their cash from her.
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The total lack of scenery means there is simply nothing for any of the performers to hide behind – apart from those decadent ostrich feather fans, so the acting, singing, dancing, everything has to be spotted on and it is.
Joel Benjamin as Roxie’s lover Fred Casely is the comic highlight of the night with his exaggerated superhero poses, helped by his impressive physique.
Ruthless lawyer Billy Flynn is played well by Liam Marcellino too but still more could have been made of the part, more comedy gleaned from the character’s outrageously corrupt ways.
Bob Fosse’s choreography is some of the best you’ll see in musical theatre, and tonight is no exception, ensemble dance routines starting out as a whisper, progressing to a vicious rumor and culminating in a single hydra-like beast with seamy slithering across the stage. There is a healthy dose of smut in those shimmies as well, raising laughs as well as pulses – those trousers really are skin-tight, with the black stockinged legs of the ladies in the cast in the air more often than on the ground.
Stand out numbers from that famous score, performed expertly by the ten piece band and musical director Andrew Hilton, include We Both Reached For The Gun, with a perfectly puppet-like Roxie underlining what a farce a criminal trial can be when you’re in showbiz. Jamie Baughan is also perfectly cast as the awkward Amos and puts on a heartwarming performance of Mr Cellophane – the man who no-one notices.
The musical may be nearly half a century old but its celebrity criminal theme is every bit as relevant today.
You get vice, vanity and venality, all delivered with a vast vat of va-va-voom and death defying splits. What more could you want on a weeknight?
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.