I’ve seen umpteen versions of this show, including one on Broadway that made a star of Ruthie Henshall, but the visceral energy and precise steps of All That Jazz may still be for me the greatest opening number of them all.
And if ever there was a show ahead of its time, then it’s this one about two morally bankrupt murderesses Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart – aided by dodgy attorney Billy Flynn – who merrily manipulate the media in prohibition murder capital Chicago creating their own web of (mis)truths to escape the noose.
It seems that Kander and Ebb were not only a pair of geniuses, they were also soothsayers predicting in this wry and often arch show the age of fake news, and people famous for being nothing other than being morons on vacuous channels like Tik Tok or Instagram.
It is always a joy to see a big show with two female leads who both make the most of playing ruthless narcissists in that rare musical where every character is either repellent or pathetic. Since leaving Weatherfield Faye Brookes has been making a name for herself onstage, and her Roxie is a lovely mix of faux innocence and self-absorption easily swinging with the red hot onstage band on big numbers like Funny Honey and Me and My Baby.
Another stage vet Djalenga Scott grabs her chance in the spotlight channeling a bit of Sutton Foster as the hard-faced Velma with a witty I Can’t Do It Alone, and confidently leading a really strong set of dancers through All That Jazz.
The other star of this show is Broadway legend Ann Reinking’s timelessly brilliant Tony winning choreography, which she updated from Bob Fosse’s original work when Chicago was revived. As well as being visually beautiful, complete with extravagant arms movements that really tell a story, it is fiendishly complex, and no-one put a foot wrong all night.
Ironically for a show that is both a mediation on and critique of the dubious nature of celebrity some productions have been blighted by stunt casting, but not so here. Sheila Ferguson used to be the favourite singer of Prince Charles when she was in The Three Degrees but since the pop career went south, she has built up a strong stage career. Her Mama Morton perhaps lacks the cynicism and bite of other versions of the bent jailer, but her singing was as strong as ever, especially during a relaxed duet with Scott on the wonderfully sardonic Class.
Russell Watson was a risker casting, but despite playing Billy as a Noo York lawyer for some reason his acting was effective and, boy, can he belt out a tune smashing Razzle Dazzle.
The last time Chicago was out on tour it felt a bit underpowered and tired, but this version is full of life thanks to two strong leads who offered the sass needed in a show that is almost drowning in cynicism.
As Scott and Ferguson sit on stage singing ‘whatever happened to fair dealing/and pure ethics/and nice manners’ you couldn’t help reflecting that this prophetic show not only has lessons for our cousins across the pond, but for us here in a nation having our own battles with what is real and honest.
Chicago is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 14th May. To book 0113 243 0808 or www.leedsheritagetheatres.com
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 10th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★