Birmingham’s Essential Entertainment Guide
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The musical production of Chicago is iconic. It is one of the most notable productions from composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb respectively, and features some of Bob Fosse’s best choreography. The production has enjoyed worldwide success since its Broadway debut in 1975 and the 2002 film, starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger, further enhanced its audience appeal.
However, you have never seen such an intimate production of Chicago than the one running at the Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham this week, featuring the theatre’s resident musical theatre company.
Two audience banks are set up opposite each other with the playing space running through the middle and a slightly elevated stage at the one end. The only colour element to the design is the plush red velvet curtain on stage and the almost matching red upholstery on prop chairs.
Half a dozen square tables and chairs line the playing space, giving a sultry cabaret club feel to the proceedings. They are a permanent fixture for the duration of the show and are utilised well throughout.
This production marks the directorial debut from Sarah Haines, who also choreographed the show and features in the ensemble. She is no stranger to the company by any means but this is her first credit as Director and hopefully will be the first of many. She brings the 1920’s jazz age to the black box theatre and in a remarkably tight playing area, ensures every member of the audience gets their money’s worth.
Being in such close proximity means that nothing goes unnoticed. This predominantly works well in the space, although it does expose minor flaws. Whilst this is Haines’ choreography, she has been heavily influenced by Fosse’s original work and as such, could have done with sharper delivery from the cast at times. The overall look is very sexy but a little tightening is required.
Chicago is known for having a very attractive male chorus. Whilst the girls delivered their side of the bargain, we only really had two men fulfilling theirs. The musical number, ‘Roxie’, should be dominated by hunky men and whilst the women in the company provided welcome support, this didn’t quite work due to company limitations.
John Kander’s music is rich sounding and fully realised by the band, under the musical direction of Karl Steele and led by Ian Stephenson, who are located in their usual attic space. The sound filters through to the performance space perfectly and there is a great balance between musicians and vocals throughout.
The two lead murderesses of the piece, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, are played superbly by Alanna Boden and Cassie Woolridge respectively. Boden has an unbelievably rich and soulful tone to her voice, which boded especially well during harmonies, with ‘My Own Best Friend’ being a particular highlight. Woolridge plays both the sweet and feisty Roxie with equal competency and demonstrates a sheer love of performance.
Hotshot lawyer, Billy Flynn, is played by Dean Bayliss who is a great actor and really draws you in during his defence speech in Act 2. However, I did feel he was lacking a little charisma needed to completely embrace the part. Other notable performances come from Lloyd Scarsbrook as Roxie’s faithful husband, Amos, and Sophie Chandler as matron Mama Morton. Also, Jessica Birtwistle’s Mary Sunshine is quite something and brings powerhouse vocals to ‘A Little Bit of Good’.
An eye-popping, sassy production that wholeheartedly deserves its advance sell-out run.
Chicago plays at the Old Joint Stock Theatre until Sunday 22 September.
**** Four stars
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