CHICAGO: Djalenga Scott as Velma Kelly and The Company. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Venue: The Alexandra, Birmingham
Performance Date: 24 January 2022
Reviewer: Alex Birch
Star Rating: ★★★★
Based on real-life events in the city of the same name, Chicago made its musical debut on Broadway in 1975 and has since become a successful franchise. As well as playing in 36 countries, the musical — which has its roots way back in a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins — spawned a 2002 Oscar-winning cinematic adaptation, starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The long queue outside The Alexandra for the week-long run of Chicago: The Musical is a testament to the enduring popularity of the show (and the requirement for theatre goers to show their Covid passes).
The performance begins with a simple all-black stage setup, which remains understated through the evening. Usage of minimal props ensures the audience’s eyes are set on the cast’s abundant talents. “All That Jazz”, one of Chicago’s catchiest and most well-loved songs, is the first number performed, strongly establishing the singing talents of Velma. She is portrayed by Djalenga Scott, who previously understudied the role in the West End.
For those who have only seen the Hollywood adaptation of Chicago, Catherine Zeta-Jones sets an exceedingly high bar. Scott doesn’t quite match the stage presence of her Hollywood counterpart, but she displays the immense stamina and talent required to perform demanding dance routines, hit every note, and act live on stage. So does Faye Brooks of Coronation Street fame in her role as the fame chasing murderess Roxie Hart, who does a great job of getting into character as the spoilt and self-centred yet oddly likeable protagonist. The fact that the two performers pull all of this off in lingerie and high heels is all the more impressive.
However, there’s a bit of ‘oomph’ lacking in the show, through no fault of the actors, who seem to be victims to slightly inappropriate audio setup. The presence of a live orchestra onstage throughout, while adding to the sophisticated atmosphere of a 1920s jazz club, sometimes drowns out the performers. Forced to compete with the orchestra, the vocals of boisterous attorney Billy Flynn (Darren Day), are at times inaudible in his first performance, a real shame, although he shines later in “We Both Reached for the Gun”.
The similar styling of Roxie and Velma also feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Both dressed in black lingerie-style attire and sporting glossy brunette hairdos, the two women look stunning, but copying the blonde/brunette contrast of the Hollywood film would help to better distinguish them on the dark stage.
In terms of plot, some might say that Chicago is such a classic that there’s no need to ‘update’ it for the 2020s. Much of the musical’s contemporary appeal lies in how it evokes such a different era, but it’s also a commentary on depressingly evergreen topics such as corruption and sexism. Roxie, Velma, and the other women imprisoned for murder beside them must work the system through a combination of money and sex appeal to avoid being convicted of their crimes. Why should a woman’s beauty dictate her access to justice? Such bias might not be so overt in today’s society, but the idea of women competing with others through beauty in the absence of other forms of power is one that still resonates.
In what otherwise feels like a chic and relevant adaptation of Chicago, the use of a convention from other live iterations of the story, wherein a male actor (B E Wong) is used to depict Mary Sunshine (a role played by a woman in the film), sits uncomfortably with narratives of transgender women being ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ circulated regularly in British papers today. It would be one thing if there was no aspect of implied deceit, but Mary Sunshine is presented as a female character for most of the performance; she boasts a falsetto voice that is sometimes successfully used to comedic effect and wears makeup and a long wig. At the end of the show, she removes her wig and reveals that she isn’t a woman after all. This apparent trickery is played for a quick laugh. Offence is of course subjective, but it feels in poor taste.
Overall, despite a handful of limitations, The Alexandra’s adaptation of Chicago is an enjoyable evening: sexy, stylish, and delivered by a roster of multi-talented and hard-working performers.
Runs until: 29 January 2022 at The Alex, and on Tour