Odd Event Reviews... Chicago

Andy Simpkins reviews the high-kicking, jazz, liquor and murder-infused, femme fatale oddity that is "Chicago" at the Mayflower theatre, Southampton, 27th February 2010

Chicago, on Stage

"C'mon baby, let's paint the town... and all that jazz... I know a whoopee spot where the gin is cold but the piano's hot and all... that... JAZZ!!"

Once again, Dear Readers, it is that time where I sit down at my PC and (hopefully) delight you all with one of my nights out at the theatre. My artistic muse is on vacation at the moment but will be back very soon with another display of polychromatic silliness for this fair website of ours and, thus, my creative outpourings seem to be centred on theatre and musical reviews as well as the short stories I write. This is something that I take a great delight in as I get to wax lyrically about various events that are treading the boards at the moment.

Enough has been said about the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton in my previous reviews so I will not bore you with the minutiae. Myself and my fiancee Jane, otherwise known as Fake Crumbly to our podcast listeners took our seats and went through the time-honoured ritual of looking around at the various faces who have come along to see the musical, have a quick fart, scratch and rearrange ones underwear before settling down to listen to the sussuration of the assembled voices around us.

It was then that the lights went down and a solitary spotlight illuminating a bowler hat placed on a chair was revealed. Speaking of revealing, it was then that one of the members of the backing cast and dance ensemble, wearing a smile and very little else wandered out onto the stage to introduce the nights proceedings.

"Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen. Tonight is a tale of murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery. All the things we hold near and dear to our hearts..."

With a coy smile on her face, she held the bowler hat to her breast as she smiled at the assorted wolf whistles which came out of the darkness of the auditorium and then flounced of the stage in order to prepare for the events to follow.

One thing I will say about the costumes in Chicago is that very little was left over from production costs to spare for the costume budget. Most of the female dancers and cast extras were dressed in what amounted to a couple of square inches of black chiffon and a couple of yards of flimsy, diaphanous gossamer to cover their modesty. It was enough to have grubby looking men clad in grubby raincoats fumbling in their pockets for their loose change. (Real Keith, stop making that rude noise with your cheeks!)

A Vaudevillian blast of wah-wah trumpeting splits the air as the curtain is raised to reveal the orchestra up on stage seated in a staggered and tiered ramp which reached almost up to the top of the stage area.. Honkey tonk piano and Charleston rhythms are predominant as the first of tonights merry murderesses; Velma Kelly, steps out on to the stage, surrounded by the backing dancers, who seductively strut and fawn around her. She murdered her husband who was, at the time, caught in a passionate clinch with her sister. All That Jazz is her opening song that paints a picture of Chicago at the height of Prohibition, resplendent with Jazz and speak-easys and men and women of easy virtue and morals.

During the course of this song, we are introduced to her protagonist; one Roxie Hart,a nightclub singer, who has killed her lover; Fred Casey, after finding out that she was just another notch on his bedpost. This scene is depicted by Roxie, played by Emma Barton, who recently played Honey Mitchell in the BBC TV soap opera Eastenders. She is seen in the orchestra section having a blazing row with her lover. They both come down to the front of the stage where Fred is shot in a crime-passionelle.

It is then that her husband, Amos, a well-meaning but bumbling and none-too-bright sort walks out on stage. Seeing the dead body lying there, he quizzes Roxie about the sudden appearance of a cadaver in their apartment. She hoodwinks him into believing that he broke into their apartment with the intent of 'ravishing' her, glossing over the fact that she had been eagerly and wholeheartedly 'ravished' by him only a little while ago with her full and eager consent.

It is then a Chicago PD policeman, masquerading as one of the well-muscled male dancers, clad in a see through shirt, unbuttoned to the waist and a rather form-fitting pair of black trousers showing off his, erm, masculinity, strode in and started quizzing Roxie and Amos about the events that have transpired.

Roxie celebrates the fact that her nice but dim-witted husband is willing to back her up to the hilt in the song Funny Honey until the truth creeps out that Fred Casey was on more than friendly terms with Roxie. The couple have a furious row at the front of the stage until Amos walks angrily off the stage, denouncing her and leaving her to her fate.

The stage goes dark and one of the backing dancers comes out of the shadows to announce that the Merry Murderesses in Cook County Jail will say how they all got into their dire predicament....

We see that six chairs are lined up in a row and six small spot lights are lowered down. Six very comely and scantily dressed ladies file out on stage, each with their distinct litany of woe, resentment and revenge.

Cell Block Tango is a song that catalogues six merry murderesses way that they dispatched their errant spouses and friends. One describes how her husbands incessant gum-chewing drove her to distraction and led to his messy demise via a double barreled shotgun and his head being turned into scarlet wallpaper. Velma recalls the fact that her sister was carrying on with her her husband, ostensibly rehearsing one of the more limber and imaginative moves of hers and Velma's dance routine, that she dispatched them both. Another describes the fact that her husband was an artist and needed to go out every night and 'find himself'. It was only after the fact that her husband was out 'finding himself' with numerous women and a man called Irving, ably portrayed stage-left by numerous dancers who popped their heads out from the wings as their names were called out and depicted a scene of a shapely tangle of male and female arms and legs that left little to the imagination...

The female inmates ranting takes on a minor note as one inmate, of Eastern European extraction, carries off a lengthy monologue in her own language to finish off with the words 'Not guilty'.

Once the six Merry Murderesses have vented spleen and have stalked off stage, a single spotlight illuminates one of the dancers who announces that we will all now be introduced to The Mistress of The Keys, The Keeper of the Clink; one Matron 'Mama' Morton....

As is the wont with all productions of Chicago, whether it be on stage or on screen, that the character of Mama Morton should be played by a middle-aged and very full-bodied and attractive woman, dressed in a black trouser suit with a very low cut front, exposing a black basque and showing a cleavage that could best be described as geologic in its depth. Out she stepped onto the stage to make her intro and to sing her opening song: When You're Good To Mama which best describes her philosophy and methodology in running Cook County Jail; namely that of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours for suitable financial inducement. "Ask any of the chickies in my pen, ask them who's their favourite Mother Hen...". It is plain to see if any of her inmates grease her palm with enough dollar bills, their passage through jail or their eventual release is made very much easier.

She has helped Velma become the medias Murderess of The Month and she will act as her agent for Vaudeville once she is naturally acquitted however Velma is not happy to see Roxie, who she thinks is stealing her thunder and her hot shot lawyer, Billy Flynn.

It is then that the lights dim and the dancers softly but insistently implore for the appearance of the man who can make them free women. The sibilant whisper of "We want Billy, give us Billy. B..I....double L Y...." until there is a rapturous round of applause as Marti Pellow, dapperly dressed in a black tuxedo with a white carnation in his buttonhole, strides confidently down the ramp leading from the orchestra stand and struts onto the stage to survey the scene. The ooh's and aahs of the female dancers reach a climax as they fawn around him. Displaying a heavy dose of irony and a dazzling showbiz smile and belying his obvious love of all material things, he launches into his theme song; All I Care About Is Love. Perfectly at ease in his role as Billy Flynn, Marti Pellow is surrounded by the female dancers, now clutching large feather fans and dancing around him in a fan dancing formation. The song draws to a close and he take Roxie to one side and skillfully rearranges her story into a crime of passion which would be eagerly devoured by newspaper readers and radio listeners. The main tool of his actions is a sympathetic tabloid columnist called Mary Sunshine. When she walked out on stage, it was blindingly obvious to even the most short-sighted and myopic of the audience that it was a man in drag wearing a blonde curly wig, lashings of lipstick and a long jacket that covered the male dancers heroic musculature. Adopting a rather schoolmarm-ish and prissy voice, with a smile of pure transvestisism on his/her face, she sings that there is A Little Bit Of Good in everyone. It is then that Billy and him/her call for a press conference in order to present Roxie to the waiting media.

It was a joy to see Billy and Mary's machinations take shape. Billy is seated on a chair in the middle of the stage and Roxie is perched on his lap in the style of a ventriloquists dummy mouthing the pre-arranged script that Billy has given her in order to gain sympathy. A backing cast member states that you '...see that his lips never move...' as Roxie hangs limply on his arm waiting to be animated. Billy weaves a complicated web of deceit, revenge and passion as Roxie, flailing around under Billy's control, says that she and her late lover; Fred Casey, tussled and fought as We Both Reached For The Gun. A question and answer session, bordering on the comical and tipping over into the farcical, followed, featuring a call and response medley, including the lines:

"Where d'ya come from?...", "...Mississippi..."

"How's your parents?...", "...Very wealthy..."

"Where are they now?...", "...Six feet under..."

Chicago, on Stage

Roxie's voice takes on a repentant tone as she says to: '...stay away from jazz and liquor...' and say that she was an innocent dragged into a depraved world as she claims that '...her choo-choo went and jumped the track...' The press, rapt in admiration for Roxie, become more and more animated until they are in a frenzy, wanting to hear all about the new arrival on the block.

This can only make a Roxie a cause celebre, with good reason does she want the attention as the Eastern European woman who was protesting her innocence in Cell Block Tango is sentenced to death. A point made graphically clear by one of the dancers saying that the condemned will perform a traditional rope dance. With a smile on her face, she climbs a ladder mounted in the wings of the stage, only to disappear from sight moments later and the only testimony to her passing is a length of rope, knotted in a hangman's noose, dropping to the stage and landing with a dull thud...

After this press conference, Roxie is the toast of the town and Velma's trial date, headlines, and career is shunted to one side. Her only option is to try and sweet-talk Roxie into recreating the act that she had with her late sister. What follows next in the song I Can't Do It Alone is a hilarious melange of dance moves, featuring some gymnastics and Egyptian sand-dancing and a host of others beside. Breathless, Velma asks what she thinks of the idea, only to be met with a resounding raspberry from an uninterested Roxie. Almost at the same time, Roxie is informed that her light has waned as the papers are reporting on the latest crime of passion to hit Chicago. Realising that they cannot rely upon each other in the song My Own Best Friend. Roxie realises that she can only regain the limelight by making a drastic move. Theatrically collapsing onto the stage, she announces to all and sundry that her life is unimportant but the life of her unborn baby is. As everyone gathers around her in consternation, Velma can only look on aghast and in amazement at Roxies latest move....

At this point the lights come up to signify the end of the first act. My fiancee; Jane or Fake Crumbly as she is known to the listeners of our fair podcast was whispering in dulcet tones in my ear that she fancied either a drink or an ice cream. As the bar was filled with The Massed Ranks Of Humanity which seems to follow me from review to review, an ice cream seemed to be the best bet. Joining the queue in order to purchase a mint choc chip and a strawberry flavoured offering, it took more than a few moments for the queue I was in to shuffle down to what appeared to be a serving hatch. Upon receiving my order, a hand thrust itself out from the hatch and sepulchral tones demanded that I hand over £4 for two tubs of ice cream. The ice cream itself was lovely but the spoon that was supposedly secreted inside the lid amounted to a thumb-nail sized piece of plastic that we were required to scrap out the ice cream with....

Once the iccream was consumed, it was just in time for the second half of the musical to begin. One of the dancers makes this plain with a rather piercing whistle aimed at the audience before giving way to Velma and her bemoaning the fact that Roxies run of luck goes from strength to strength in the songs I Know A Girl and Me And My Baby before making way to Billy and Roxies dim-witted but faithful husband Amos. Faithful to the last, despite a conversation that Roxie is 3 months pregnant and they have not had relations for 4 months, Amos being a little fuzzy-headed about the maths, he says that he will look after baby after her eventual acquittal. Billy walks off stage and Amos is left to ponder what is going to happen. He knows he is one of life's nobodies that everyone looks right through and he bemoans this in the song Mr Cellophane as he sadly trudges round the stage with his grey cardigan and a pair of thick gloves that he is wearing for some strange reason, I suppose it is to gain some pathos in the same way that Al Jolson did with his blacked up face and white gloves.

Velma, desperate to get back in the limelight, implores Billy with what she has planned for the trial in When Velma Takes The Stand before he tells Roxie how to pull the wool over the jury's eyes.

Never a stranger to flamboyance in his representation of a client, he launches into Razzle Dazzle in which he can have the courtroom eating out of his hand in his attempts to garner a favourable result. He is the ringmaster who is cracking the whip in a legal three-ring circus.....

Chicago, on Stage

The dancers, pretending to be Joe Public listening to the radio, are held captive by what Mary Sunshine is relaying from the courtroom, even down to the theatrical dabbing of her eyes, her attempts at knitting that Billy has told her to carry out, the sniffing and the elegant shoes with the rhinestone buckles that she is wearing.

Listening to the radio back at the Cook County Jail with great interest are Mama Morton and Velma. When Velma hears that Roxie is wearing rhinestone buckled shoes, an idea that she passed onto Billy, who in turn passed it onto Roxie without Velma's consent, she exploded with rage and denounces Billy. Mama Morton can only agree that her ideas have been stolen and they bemoan the fact in Class, saying how manners have all but gone and how people trample all over you with nary a thought for your feelings.

Back in the courtroom, you can cut the air with a knife as the verdict is about to be announced but suddenly, there is the sound of gunfire outside the courtroom and the reporters, once so eager to quiz Roxie, make a dash outside to seek the new source of news. She can only stand in the middle of the room, forlorn and abandoned as the realisation hits her that she is suddenly yesterdays news. Billy Flynn ambles in to inform her that she has been found not guilty. Hot on his heels is Mary Sunshine, eager to find out about the latest commotion which is happening outside. To prove a point about the fickle nature of overnight fame, he turns to Mary, pulls her wig and her coat off to reveal a rather burly and aghast man standing there with a look of horror on his face. Turning back to Roxie, he says the "...things are never what they seem...' as the uncovered 'Mary Sunshine' flounces off stage to hoots of laughter from the audience This comes as something of both a surprise and an anticlimax to her and Billy leaves the courtroom, hot on the trail of his next client, pausing only to turn to the audience and wave goodbye as Marti Pellow cheerfully thanks the audience and asks the conductor to play his exit music and with a bound and a wave, he is gone.

After the applause has died down, it is at this moment that the music takes on a minor note as the ever-faithful Amos walks in and tells Roxie that he wants her back, baby and all. Bitterly, she tells him that there was no baby, it was all a ruse in order for her to gain sympathy from the public.

Even he cannot stand this and renounces her. The actor who plays Amos climbs up the stairs in the middle of the orchestra stand and, with a dramatic flourish, says: "My exit music please!..." Silence greets this as the conductor and the orchestra take no notice of him. Amos is left to trudge off the stage alone, only accompanied by a chorus of "Aaahs" from the audience. Roxie is left alone with her thoughts, encapsulated in the song Nowadays until an unlikely saviour comes in. Velma had been listening to the court case on the radio and knows how bad the bitter taste of the ashes of defeat can be. They both realise that finally becoming a team is the only way they can regain their notoriety.

It is then a glittering backdrop of tinsel and sequins is lowered and, clad in bowler hats and carrying canes, a la Cabaret, Velma and Roxie reprise Nowadays to a rapturous audience and carry out a dance routine called Hot Honey Rag, which incorporates many of the elements and movements featured in I Can't Do It Alone.

All too soon the song ends and the entire cast is up on stage for the finale and to make their farewells. Marti Pellow and Emma Barton drew the biggest cheers of the evening along with, surprisingly, the actor who played Amos, which just goes to show that everyone loves an underdog.

I saw this musical for the first time several years ago down at the Princess Theatre in Torquay and it was just as good then as it is is now. It is very rare that I get my theatre reviewers hat on but when I do, you bet that what I have seen is worth it...

Chicago, on Stage