First published in The Times, Wednesday June 6 2018
Likeability is so overrated. The characters in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago are unapologetically venal, rapacious or at best pathetic. Rare moments of introspection are undercut with cruelty and irony. If the audience is in any doubt as to how little the show’s murderous leads care about obtaining our sympathy, we return for Act II to be welcomed with the line, “Hello, Suckers”.
That the paying public can’t get enough of all this corruption and abuse is borne out by the show’s numbers. The Prohibition era-set classic, first staged in 1975, is the longest running American musical in Broadway history, and it’s not hard to see (or rather hear) why. In an era of bland musical scores, where you have to keep your ears open to discern the 11 o’clock number, Chicago is crowded with memorable songs. Moreover, its brazen satirical portrait of criminals basking in their 15 minutes of fame has never gone out of fashion.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The beauty of Richard Baron’s revival for Pitlochry Festival Theatre is that the smaller auditorium allows its audience for once to see the considerable performing virtuosity on display in a way that productions in huge venues rarely afford. Our eyes bob and leap in tandem with the powerhouse thrusts and high kicks of celebrity murderesses Velma Kelly (Niamh Bracken) and Roxie Hart (Lucie-Mae Sumner). When lawyer Billy Flynn (Carl Patrick) enters, dressed in a feather-collared coat of the kind Liberace might have worn to church, he sweeps the front row with a gaze that seems to gather us all in, like a dragnet.
In this bold pageant of the depraved, every one of the leads enjoys her or his moment in the spotlight. Bracken and Sumner make for a riveting double-act as the hard-bitten Velma and clever bimbo Roxie. Irene-Myrtle Forrester brings a warmth and subtlety to her role as Matron “Mama” Morton, whose favours to her charges in the Big Dollhouse are delivered at a price. Alan Mirren is delightfully feeble as Roxie’s nondescript husband. The ensemble sizzles against Charles Cusick-Smith’s stark gold-and-black set.
Pic: Douglas McBride
While it is impossible to shrug off the influence of Bob Fosse, the show’s co-creator and original choreographer, Baron’s co-director Chris Stuart-Wilson brings wit and imagination as well as a knowing affection to the iconic movement. Kander and Ebb’s blend of cynical humour, sleazy glamour and invention are shown off to strong effect in Baron’s production in the musical set pieces, notably the snappily-choreographed Cell Block Tango, the gleeful ostentation of the courtroom sequences and, most gratifyingly of all, in the show’s signature paean to hedonism, All That Jazz.