Speaking as the ultimate A Chorus Line fan, I’m not entirely certain why I keep going to see Chicago. Whilst, on the face of it, you might think the two have a lot in common, being 1970s American musicals featuring the expertise of the top two choreographers of the age, well… yes, but that’s about it. A Chorus Line wears its heart on its sleeve as it exposes the reality of the dancers’ lives and cuts away the crap from people to reveal their true souls; Chicago, on the other hand, aggrandises sham. It relishes the glitzy, show-offy facades of its characters in the quest for ultimate celebrity. A Chorus Line strives to present you good, decent, real people in real time auditioning in the same theatre where you are sitting; Chicago celebrates law-breakers who attempt to get off scot-free by fluttering their manipulative, sexually provocative eyelashes at the court and (more importantly) the media. A Chorus Line asserts that everyone is special; Chicago pokes fun at failures.
You’ve also got that massive difference in choreographic and costume style. Michael Bennett gave his dancers subtlety and style; exhilaration for sure, but happy, tasteful exhilaration; and, above all, artistry. Bob Fosse gave his Chicagoans open legs and bending over backwards to satisfy. Bennett’s dancers wore audition gear and then silver and gold spangles for their finale; Fosse’s wear black chiffon and fishnets, somewhere in the Cabaret/Rocky Horror spectrum. Chicago seems to represent almost everything that A Chorus Line isn’t. It kind of therefore follows that, as a huge lover of Chorus Line, I really don’t like Chicago – the show – at all. Its saving grace is its songs – particularly the tunes – which are punchy and fun and memorable.
Nevertheless, I went to the Royal and Derngate full of enthusiasm and expectation because I was hoping for a top quality production that would emphasise all the good things about the show. I know I’m a Bennett boy and not a Fosse follower but, at the end of the day, you have to admit it, Bob Fosse was a creative genius. Sadly, I thought the show overall was – as the young people of today might say – a bit meh. IMHO there’s a big problem with the orchestra pod jutting too far out into the stage to provide a satisfactory dance space. With no depth to the stage, everything has to be wide and shallow; and when this causes actors and dancers with this level of talent to bump into each other – something’s not right.
Secondly there is – dare I say it – the choreography. There were two elements to my disappointment. The first problem stares at you from the programme: “Original Choreography by Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse; Re-creation of Original Choreography by Gary Chryst”. It’s as though Fosse’s vision has been passed down the line in a series of Chinese Whispers – I felt what I saw was a very watered down version of how good it could have been; Fosse-lite. Secondly, we’ve now been spoilt by that splendid young dancemaster Drew McOnie having seen his Leicester Curve Chicago in 2013. You don’t need to have a contest between the two about who’s the best choreographer – but what you did get from the Leicester production was the first-hand vision of what the presentation should be like, not third- or fourth-hand. And it shows.
As for the performances – let’s start high and recognise that, in the show we saw, Roxie was played by the understudy Lindsey Tierney and she was absolutely magnificent. Cool as a cucumber, choreographically spot on, a great vocal performance, and completely looking the part. We both thought she was terrific. I also really enjoyed Sophie Carmen-Jones as Velma, full of attitude and spirit, a great singer and dancer, nice comic delivery and, what’s the point of denying it, she’s pretty cute too. Much has been made of X-Factor winner Sam Bailey appearing as Mama Morton. I’m afraid we don’t watch that so I hadn’t a clue who she was. She has a strong stage presence and can certainly belt out a song, but I don’t think she conveyed enough of the character’s deviousness or financial greed. In the past I have felt that Mama Morton might have a certain sexual curiosity about her girls too, which gives the character a bit of extra depth; but there was no suggestion of that here.
I’m a great admirer of John Partridge, who plays the lawyer Billy Flynn, but I had heard conflicting reports about his performance. Billy Flynn is one of those characters that you can interpret in many ways. When I saw Chicago in 1979 the role was taken by Ben Cross and he played it (if I remember rightly) fairly serious and arrogant on stage. In the Leicester version David Leonard played Flynn as a completely lascivious sleazebag. Here, Mr Partridge portrays him absolutely true to the spirit of this production – the height of façade, of celebrity pretence; of total amorality. He plays up to the crowd, he adopts a smarmy grin, he calls out for applause for his long sustained note, he milks the showbizziness of the role for all it’s worth. It’s all show-off and look-at-me. But when you get right to the heart of the character – which, if he has one, is money – if you come between him and his $5000, he’ll cut you dead and no sympathy. When Roxie clearly becomes a more lucrative client than Velma, this Flynn delights in squishing the latter’s courtroom appeal chances. If you were going to try to tap into this Flynn’s generous nature – you’d spend a long time tapping. Of course, Mr Partridge is a song and dance man par excellence, and his vocals and stage presence are great as always. It’s a shame he doesn’t have any remotely challenging or artistic dancing to do until the second act – but Razzle Dazzle is definitely worth waiting for.
Neil Ditt makes a good Amos, although (and I know comparisons are odious) he’s much more a figure of fun than in previous productions I’ve seen, where the pathos of Mr Cellophane could bring a tear to your eye. A D Richardson sang the Mary Sunshine role absolutely splendidly and in many respects this was the most realistic performance of this role I’ve ever seen; but I was surprised how flat and undramatic her “reveal” scene turned out to be. Maybe a little rushed? Ben Atkinson’s orchestra throw themselves into John Kander’s fantastic tunes with immense gusto and appropriate irreverence – I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed supine conducting before.
So despite some very good aspects, I still left feeling slightly deflated. I think it’s the amorality that depresses me. What can I say? If amorality is your spice of life, you’ll love it! The tour continues throughout the country right through to December.
P. S. Theatre etiquette observation #341a. The gentleman behind me decided that Miss Carmen-Jones’ voice was not sufficient for the task so sang along – without inhibition – to the song All That Jazz. Every so often he forgot the words and allowed the professional to take charge, but then he would remember them again and join in. I did three of my glares – each getting steadily more aggressive – but to no avail. I decided that if he also chose to sing along to the next song I would turn around and tell him to shut up (and suffer the consequences, if he then chose to harangue me for the rest of the evening.) Fortunately he wasn’t that well rehearsed with the rest of the show. Moral: if you’re in a show and one of your favourite songs comes on, remember that miming to it retains the mystery of your voice and we’ll never know quite how good you are at singing. Otherwise, shut the **** up.