Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Chicago – could be set in 2022 rather than 1924! (Grand Opera House until Saturday 11 June)

Could there be a better time for the musical Chicago to be on tour?

The current UK production opened in Belfast on the evening that a British Prime Minster with a much-debated relationship with the truth faced a no confidence vote – the result was announced online just as the Grand Opera House curtain raised after the interval – and in the immediate aftermath of the second Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial.

Style over substance. Opinion mattering more than fact. Not letting the truth get in the way of a heart-tugging emotional feeling. That’s the analysis of many people looking at much that has been in the news over the last five or ten years. Or as a Chicago lyric says:

“The whole world’s gone low-brow. Thing’s ain’t what they used to be.”

The musical is a satire based around the corrupt criminal justice system of the 1920s that allowed women accused of homicide in Chicago to become newspaper celebrities with media-friendly narratives created to help their cases. However, the big numbers – particularly Lawyer Billy Flynn’s Razzle Dazzle – take on a whole new meaning and elevate Chicago to a much grander satire pointing a sparkling vaudeville finger at 21st century politics, the press and the judiciary.

Musically, the current touring production pares back the first half of most of the numbers, often reducing the lyrics to whispers and a simple accompaniment. When the eventual crescendo finally arrives, the dynamic shift is so much larger than usual, amplifying the immorality and injustice. It’s so satisfying to experience from the stalls, and the deliberate quietening creates the space for the audience to soak in the wider significance of the tale being told.

This tour’s cast is in somewhat of a flux. Last night, Liam Marcellino was taking on the role of Billy Flynn, the money-grabbing superstar lawyer to the incarcerated women. And Billie Hardy confidently stepped into the shoes of Roxie Hart who needs to play every trick in the book to sell a sympathetic story to the jury who seem (quite literally at one point) blind to the real facts of her case.

The wow moments of the production come when Djalenga Scott is on stage as Velma Kelly. High kicks, splits, a beautiful voice and emotion aplenty are guaranteed throughout All That Jazz, I Can’t Do It Alone, I Know a Girl and her brilliant Nowadays duet with Roxie/Hardy.

Roxie’s husband Amos at first seems to be a throwaway character before lawyer Flynn fashions him into a complete monster. By the finale, Baughan’s fine sense of comic timing has the audience eating out of Amos’ hand.

While the standard of dancing and choreography is high, certain roles are traditionally carved out for less light-footed big names. So it’s quite obvious that Mama Morton (Sinitta Malone) and Billy Flynn get to remain static while beautiful shapes are created around them. That said, both actors owned their solo songs and no one felt out of place.

The set suggests that we’ve turned up at a slightly dingy vaudeville club where actors sit around the side of the stage as the performance continue. A talented 10-piece jazz band and their animated conductor – all men! do women not play jazz or go on tour? – are spaced out over the tiered set, integrated into the action with the entr’acte (post-interval overture) really geeing up the audience.

Normally touring musical productions are high on entertainment and low on thoughtfulness. But Chicago gets its teeth into your mind. If you’re taken in by thinking it’s all tights, teeth and top hats, you’re missing the message and the show has pulled the wool over your ears! Listen to the lyrics, take note of what Mama, Velma and Flynn are up to.

Show ’em the first rate sorceror you are
Long as you keep ’em way off balance
How can they spot you've got no talents
Razzle Dazzle ’em 

Chicago continues at the Grand Opera House in Belfast until Saturday 11 June

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