Chicago, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

1920s Chicago, a world of gangsters represented by grungy sets and hairy, overweight men and wom… Nah, you know better, right? Chicago is one of the most visually familiar musicals of our age, its tight-fitting and revealing costumes showing off the lithe and toned bodies of dancers recreating Bob Fosse’s choreography (or at least Ann Reinking’s creations in his style).

Kander and Ebb’s musical, concentrating on a very modern obsession with celebrity and a twisted form of female empowerment in its tale of killers Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart as they campaign to escape the hangman’s noose, owes its current, iconic style to its troubled history. Its initial Vaudeville-style staging lasted a year on Broadway, but it was a semi-staged concert revival that formed the basis of the show’s modern, record-breaking runs on both sides of the Atlantic. Hence the set is minimal, and the orchestra (conducted by Ben Atkinson) dominates the stage, allowing the brassy jazz stylings to blast the audience as they accompany the sultrily comedic storytelling.

And initially, at least for this touring version, the orchestra is also dominant in other ways, as the dance ensemble’s first moves are nervy and hesitant, as if on this tour they need time to adjust to the size of each new stage and work out how to fit their moves into a limited space. Thankfully, it’s not a quarter of an hour until the assuredness one expects kicks in. From then on, the ensemble dancing is as confident and as sexy as Chicago’s reputation deserves.

But as exciting and thrilling as coordinated Fosse-style choreography is, it is the characters of Chicago that are essential to this tale. And here, the responsibilities principally lie with its four lead actors: Sophie Camen-Jones and Hayley Tamaddon as Velma and Roxie, supported by scheming lawyer Billy Flynn (John Partridge) and prison warden-cum-agent Mama Morton, a wonderfully belting performance from Gina Murray. Partridge has never met a piece of scenery he can’t chew, and it’s only the show’s outré stylings that prevent his over-the-top tendencies from appearing too out of place.

It is the dynamic between Velma and Roxie, and their rivalry for the ephemeral attention of the press, that drives the whole show. And here, Carmen-Jones suffers just as Velma does – while she is commanding and engaging on her own, all that is for naught when Tamaddon’s Roxie enters the fray. This is pure Velma Kelly, a performance which is self-assured, strong and insists upon complete attention from its audience. Tamaddon’s previous musical theatre experience is somewhat overshadowed in the public’s attention by her roles on TV soap operas, but anybody watching her sing, dance and emote in this show will be begging to see her in more (the name on everybody’s lips, one might dare to suggest, is going to be ‘Hayley’).

While Chicago may no longer be in the West End, its place in the public affections has not faded. Its initial hesitancies notwithstanding, this touring production keeps the show alive in the best possible way.

At Aylesbury Waterside until July 16, then continues to tour. For more details, visit chicagothemusical.com. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

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