Image Credit: Izzy Baxter
As the curtain went up on the first of four performances of CHMS’ Chicago, none of the sold-out theatre watching knew what to expect. As the musical hits its 45th year, would it survive an amateur retelling? Would the young cast succeed in breathing new life into a play that opened just as Gerald Ford became President?
The answer, for almost every minute of the production, every toe-tapping number, and dazzling costume change, is yes.
Joe Spence’s direction has produced a musical that beautifully reflects contemporary struggles for identity and power, whilst staying true to Chicago’s darker roots. Like the original, the show plays heavily to its imagery, using a minimal set, and blank backlight to keep the audience focused on the cast.
With this treatment, Katie Eve Thompson’s choreography is allowed to shine. The chorus are heavily involved in most numbers, and most of the jazz dancing is dynamic and varied, especially among the leading women. Lighting is incredible, with the chorus dancing mostly silhouetted against the back wall. The show features some stunning lifts, with a modernised take on Bob Fosse’s distinctive jazz choreography from the 2002 film, with a jaw-dropping tap finale. Occasionally, the choreography is not as tight as it could be, which is to be expected considering the technical demands placed on the amateur cast.
The show is carried well by the two female leads: Emily Smith’s Roxie, and Simone Mumford’s Velma. Their vocals were excellent, and they managed to hold the room in solo numbers despite the bare set and minimal technical help. Roxie’s ‘Roxie’ song is a standout moment in the show, but their synergy as a pair comes across particularly well in ‘Nowadays’, where Kander's chaotic harmonies become a number sung in unison.
For people who have seen it before, this version of Chicago seemed to be trying something different. Many moments that were written nearly half a century ago are given emphasis: the era of #MeToo gives lines like the Cell Block Tango’s “how could you tell us that we were wrong", extra significance. A line later in the play asking one of the women if she is going to "believe what you see or what I tell you" is also particularly moving. Chicago may be a play about women murdering husbands that fall short, but this version also has a strong message of empowerment, where women eventually seize agency from men.
In this context, the reveal of Mary Sunshine as a man generally falls flat in less sensitive productions but Charlie Barber’s depiction of the female Chicago journalist was a great moment, earning the largest applause of the night (although that may have been more to do with Barber’s incredible vocal technique: it’s something that must be seen to be believed.)
In playing Billy Flynn, Sam Gavin-Pitt is charismatic and likeable. He shines particularly whilst puppeting Roxie in ‘We Both Reached For the Gun’, and in the courtroom scenes, where physical direction and light musical accompaniment give his mimed testimony with Peter Williams’ Fred the energetic zing of a good Loony Tunes episode. This physical humour is taken even further in the show by ‘My Baby and Me’, although it would be a shame to spoil just how in a review.
Occasionally, despite its minimal set design, the show sacrifices a little of its substance for style: especially in the first half, lights go out after almost every number giving the otherwise slick show a jilted quality. The directing decision to resurrect a dead Fred to introduce the next scene also landed a little oddly with the audience.
The challenges of working with an all-British cast also became apparent through the occasional diction issue. Some sentences were lost in the Chicago drawl: this meant that some of Chicago’s funnier dialogue didn’t get as much of a laugh as it could have. The accent was dropped sporadically in some musical numbers too
Overall, however, CHMS’ cast have done an excellent job at giving the show poignance and flair, with a production that will leave the audience breathless as they exit the Joseph Rowntree. There’s a lot to enjoy for newcomers and fans of the original musical alike.