Not only is the Fools & Kings Theatreproduction of Broadway legend Chicago one of the first instances of the musical being re-appropriated by non-professionals, it looks to be a fantastic adaptation of Watkins’ original play, and a rollicking ride for the audience. It will be performed in traverse, with the audience sat either side of a stage we are told will have moving platforms, and its running time should be under two hours.
The complete cast began by running through a couple of their warm-up routines, which, although clearly not part of the musical, served to show the troupe’s high levels of enthusiasm, and the choreographer’s vitality (turning around during “Cell Block Tango”, I saw Skingsley gripping her knees, miming out the moves and nodding through the cadences with fervent intensity).
The first piece per se was perhaps one of their more perfected ones: “Class” is the duo between an irate Velma and an indignant Matron Mama Morton who, as they listen to the radio broadcast of Roxy’s trial, lament the degradation of the morals and ethics in the show business of Prohibition-era Chicago. Josie Richardson, who plays Velma, stalked onto stage like she already owned the place, and her clear, almost faultless voice blended well with Big Mama’s suitably mellow twang (Florence Brady). Brady’s easy, seen-it-all attitude did not fall into dramatic complaisance, however: both Brady and Richardson kept the comical tempo and the scene’s energy up, and sailed through the harmonies and canons.
The second number presented was “Roxie”. Georgina Hellier, playing the song’s eponymous heroine, combined her impressive physique and her throaty voice – with particular praise for her powerful vibrato – to create just the kind of self-conscious sex appeal one would imagine the aspiring showgirl to display, artfully bordering on simpering self-indulgence. Nonetheless, this is a relatively private moment, an insight into what populates the landscape of Roxie’s desires. Which conveniently leads me to the quattuor of male performers (Lecznar, Woodman, Nicols, and Bland) embodying Roxie’s fantasies of fame and sexual gratification. These guys are great (albeit not always in tune), dishing out the hip-pops and the lingering caresses in unison, amusingly over-the-top but by no means a mere accompaniment.
Their penultimate number was the infamous “Cell Block Tango”. Katherine Skingsley, a decidedly excellent choreographer, made ingenious use of space, replicating the traverse effect on stage, with the dancers either end of the stage, and each Merry Murderess consecutively in the centre. Despite their missing a few cues, and Melissa Varney’s Hunyak unfortunately amalgamating helplessness with soundlessness (her singing and dancing were otherwise fine), their performance was definitely promising. And if they haven’t quite reached the viciousness of the song’s musical pulse yet, sometimes overstraining their voices to compensate, the six Merry Murderesses are genuinely at their best when they work as an ensemble. As for the choreography, I was informed there would be the obligatory poles and a ladder, but from what I could see it was simply and effectively symbolic, making great use of diagonals and group effects of symmetry. A special mention should be made for Richardson, really coming forth as the Cell Block’s compact powerhouse, and for Leonie Ricks, who plays June (unforgettably “carving up a chicken for dinner”) and whose staggering bodily confidence and brilliant vocal hoarseness fuse into a rough, eminently appropriate sex appeal.
The last piece was “Nowadays”: Roxie and Velma have just buried the hatchet, and decide to collaborate their way towards glamorous glory. It’s a duo act which Jack Sain, the production’s wonderfully punctilious (and on-point) director, immediately presented as being very much unfinished. This was the first time it was put together, and its status as work in progress was unfortunately manifest. Richardson and Hellier were uncharacteristically subdued, nervously unsure of their cues and dance moves, and repeatedly out of sync. Hopefully, by the time the two leading ladies find their feet, “Nowadays” will be as energetic and convincing as Chicago’s other numbers.
Afterwards, I asked the director Jack Sain whether he felt there was tension between the production’s emphasis on “feminist interpretations” of its central characters, and its concurrent aesthetic bias for a return to the “the colour and vaudeville” of Chicago’s theatrical source. Didn’t he find it contradictory to use this highly stylised, self-professedly farcical form (the Press Pack dubs the show a “gaudy satire”) as a means of exploring the rather more serious feminist implications behind its murky plot? “I see there is a tension, but multiplicity of genre is natural in theatre. We wanted to use the gaudiness and the unrealism as a dramatic means of apprehending the horror behind it all.” For her part, choreographer Katherine Skingsley confessed that her one of her pet peeves with the staging and dancing of many past productions has been the compulsory presence of “fishnets and big sexy splits” for songs like “Cell Block Tango”. She explained that she meant to focus far more on the songs as spaces of “empowerment” in which their performers, exploited and abused, were the agents of a “female coming together”. And whether or not one reads such feminist potential in Chicago’s deliciously satiric storyline, the fact is that this is a troupe whose brilliancy lies in their unison: the best and most powerful moments in the preview were the duos, the quattuors, the ensembles.
All in all this is already a seriously impressive production, with ambitious choreographing, superb (if at times a little uneven) singing, and a great, driven cast. The Oxford drama scene could do more with more musicals, and I have no doubt that under Sain’s demanding, finely tuned direction, Chicago will unfold into a memorably fabulous performance.
Chicago is on at the O’Reilly Theatre from 20-23rd of November. Tickets are £8.50-£10