Theatre in Wales

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Give them the Old Razzle Dazzle

Chicago

Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July-26-10
Chicago by Aberystwyth Arts Centre “Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, treachery.” Michael Morwood, musical director doubling up as a debonair MC, stands alone on Aberystwyth's broad stage. “All those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.” So continues the opening line in Bob Fosse's and Fred Ebb's book, setting the tone, quite distinctive, for Kander and Ebb's hard-edged, cynical, brittle musical.

Before its emergence as a musical “Chicago” went through a long gestation. From a pair of real life court cases it became a 1920's play that made it to Broadway, then a toned-down 1940's film vehicle for Ginger Rogers. Its most intriguing aspect is that it seems to ever grow in relevance and modernity. Its current London run has far out-paced its first production in 1979.

The curtain opens to a stage imprinted with blown-up fragments from the Chicago Tribune. Ali Allen's set for Cook County Gaol is two storeys of ten prison cells, a blow-up of a Tamara de Lempicka portrait as backdrop. The eight-strong band inhabits a corner cell of its own.

The phenomenon of criminal as celebrity is not new. Jonathan Wild and Charles Peace, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively, were lionised in the media of their periods. But when the prison governor (Elizabeth Diamond's wonderful “Mama” has a rasp of a voice that could file its own way out of any prison cell) plans a nightclub tour for murderess Velma after her acquittal it might once have seemed the stuff of fantasy. But Wales' most convicted narcotics smuggler has made a successful second career as stage entertainer. In a month when even Britain's Prime Minister has been drawn into a row about the posthumous treatment of a murderer, Billy Flynn's lines “The whole world...is show business. Give them the razzle dazzle” really sound quite prescient.

A good composer knows the first number is all-important and “All that Jazz” is as spicy as they come. It's Velma Kelly's number as Roxie Hart is pre-occupied with committing murder. Shona Lindsay soon gets into the musical limelight with “Funny Honey”. The song starts as a tribute of love to husband Amos but descends acidly to “Shut up that trap/ I can't stand that sap.” Only in the interval does the viewer wonder just how challenging it must be to sing while horizontal on the top of a piano wearing a slinky kimono.

Meanwhile, Carrie Ellis in the opening number catches in her singing that nasal quality that is the vocal hallmark of the mid-western woman. But then her vocal range also takes in a husky whisper.

A production of “Chicago” comes with some baggage, not just memories of the over-valued film but Bob Fosse's choreography. Wisely, Anthony Williams has cast his production in a way that ignores the film; characters are of a different age, different colour. His first piece of choreography contains a piece of homage to Bob Fosse, the flick of the wrist that he made his distinctive signature. Otherwise the choreography is entirely new. There are pieces of tap and Charleston to fit the period of bobbed hair and flounced skirts. But in the ensemble dance with the pack of journalists he has created a staccato set of movements that are quite original.

The show does follow precedent in staging Illinois prison outfit as wispy black slips and suspenders. But when lawyer Billy makes his appearance it is all feathers and foot-high Lido de Paris-style headgear. Ian Knauer has the profile of a well-known, NHS-insulting Euro-MP; with his spats, his white silk scarf, a red rose in his buttonhole his Billy Flynn is more sleek than sleazy.

“Chicago” also breaks the mould in having two leading ladies, Velma Kelly having been expanded from a minor character in the story's former versions. This allows two big duo numbers. For the anthemic “My Own Best Friend” the band delivers music of such a weight and size that it hard to believe it is coming from just an eight-some. John Kander's music draws heavily on the jazzy influences of the period and Michael Downing's trumpet and Tommy Pearson's trombone give the score all the panache it demands.

The plot is low on emotional content. What there is falls on spurned husband Amos. The part in act one is not much than more to be bulked-out, dungareed, straight blue-collar guy. When his moment comes with “Mr Cellophane” David Barrett gets all the emotion out of both the lines and the lyrics that the show needs. He achieves a real poignancy with just two syllables of his limp little “Okay” when his exit music fails to materialise. As for Roxie, after the emotional cauldron she has escaped from, her first and only thought is of the paparazzi who have rushed off to a more lurid crime. “They didn't even want my picture” she laments; it is very now.

The Aberystwyth summer musical has earned itself over a couple of decades a loyal audience franchise. From the sound of the reaction this year “Chicago” may be breaking new ground in tone and content but went down with no less rapture. What is interesting is how the Aber show has morphed into taking on the most demanding shows from the musical canon. It is difficult to envisage now a second-leaguer like “Godspell” being chosen. A partisan view admittedly, but as a consistent quality producing venue it stands alongside the Watermill and the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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