Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Chicago, Cambridge Theatre

This is what it's looked like on any one of the thousands of nights from the past 13 years of its run:



Last night I went to see Chicago (which I had already enjoyed on-screen) in its current incarnation at the Cambridge Theatre. It's a robust, slick show which leaves no time or even space for reflection. A very 'meta' show, the cast not only play a number of parts inside and outside its narrative but everyone on stage slips easily between roles and compering directly with the audience. As a statement of intent in this respect, having the band on show in the central stage set makes it clear that the story of "murder, greed, corruption, violence" (etc.) is never more important than the sexually gymnastic frenzy of the routines with which it is told.

The principals last night were a strong, sassy ensemble. Sarah Soetaert's Roxy is arguably the star, i.e. she controls the attention with the minimum of show, although she punches the routines hard. Vivien Carter's Velma is the opposite, working her legs tirelessly & immaculately and creating the only believable relationship with Jasna Ivir's prison warden 'Matron'. Terence Maynard has the front, if not the voice to carry off Billy Flynn. Perhaps the most surprising contribution is that of Daniel Goode as Amos, a straight man role to relieve the relentless opiate of physical fetishism. It's a thankless role which Goode manages with the same physical precision as the dancers, no less humour and a great deal of pathos. (I don't understand the final principal role, that of Mary Sunshine, a sort of buffo drag appendage).

Chicago's success may be down to its timing, with its themes of stars-in-their-eyes meritocracy very much a theme in the 1997-2007 boom part of the Noughties (a favourite topic of mine at the moment, I'm aware). The idea that someone not only without talent but also with negative attributes (breaking laws or moral codes) can turn that around by controlling the drip feed of that sensation to a media-nursed public is familiar from the boom in reality TV shows. Not only the story but the very nature of Chicago's drama does that as well - as an audience we are happy to indulge the sensation of semi-clad bodies performing remarkable physical routines rather than face the narrative reality of "murder, greed, corruption, violence" (etc.) which are not terribly nice things at all.

Perhaps what's missing in the stage show is the satire. To keep the razzle dazzle fizzing along, the performers are rather transparent, not characters but chameleons of the imagination. They are tropes who barely bother to change costume to adopt roles like jealous lover, judge or reporter, such is the evanescent nature of their contribution in our consciousness. There are really only three real characters in the show: Roxy, Velma and Amos. This is the greatest irony, the only irreducible satire - that apparently the least of these, Amos, who sings about not being noticed is one of the only truly substantive characters, unlike the other flimsy, 'cellophane' roles that are there to titillate and distract.

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