Monday, 5 November 2018

Chicago The Musical, Phoenix Theatre: The Verdict


Revivals are equal part safe and risky. Yes, you are guaranteed an audience with an existing connection, but with that connection comes expectations and a scrutinising comparison between the new production and the source material. While a Chicago revival seems like an easy move on paper - the assured level of recognition, interest and ultimately ticket sales - it also exposes the revival to being pitted against every prior production, forces the actors into the shoes of those who tread before them and raises expectations for something bigger, better and bolder than ever before.

Despite knowing the film and soundtrack all too well, I had only seen one stage production before (the UK tour in 2012), and was significantly underwhelmed to the point where I haven't rushed to see this West End revival. Of course, preconceptions aren’t exclusive to revivals and remakes. Press, blogs and social media have a huge influence on the conversation around new productions and consequently shape our own preconceptions, whether we like it or not. 

My own underwhelming previous experience of the show coupled with disappointing press reviews already had me half convinced I wouldn’t like it. How wrong was I? To reveal the extent of my injustices, I’m revealing said preconceptions and, in the spirit of Chicago, judging this production guilty or not guilty. Ridiculous? Yes. But my alternative title for this post was ‘Ode to Alexandra Burke’s Facial Expressions’, so let’s all be thankful that I drew the line there.

Chicago is a stylish but underwhelming show - NOT GUILTY

My feelings towards the UK Tour production I saw back in 2012 seemed to echo what I’ve heard from others over the years (from a variety of different productions including New York, where it still stands as the second longest-running show in Broadway history): completely underwhelming and a little disappointing. Though it isn’t miles away from what I’d seen before, the standard certainly was. It was a slick, stylish and seriously satisfying watch.

Its current format is tired and a little overdone - NOT GUILTY

Much of the sentiment from the initial reviews upon its arrival at the Phoenix is that of disappointment at how closely this production still resembles the original 1975 production. It’s true that there is nothing new or innovative about this revival, but the enthusiasm of the cast was infectious, and there is something to be said for the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach, particularly with an audience favourite like Chicago. 

Perhaps the latest wave of casting has given the show a fresh burst of energy that its opening couldn’t quite muster, but it felt more like the unravelling of a shinier model of something we all know and love, rather than exhibiting its out-dated predecessor on its last legs. Though it remains firmly rooted in 1920s Chicago, at its core society hasn’t progressed too far from the characters' fame-driven desperation for publicity. The name in everybody’s tweets is gonna be Roxy? Doesn’t quite have the same ring...

A production so fed by stunt casting can't have much other substance - NOT GUILTY

There’s been a lot of talk about stunt casting in theatre over the last few years, and with Love Island’s Amber Davies announced for 9 to 5 the Musical, singer and YouTuber Conor Maynard taking on Kinky Boots on Broadway, and now Dani Dyer joining her dad in Nativity! the Musical, the conversation is only getting louder. This revival of Chicago has been through a few rounds of celebrity casting, with Cuba Gooding Jr. heading up its opening in the West End before Martin Kemp took over the role. The most recent wave saw Alexandra Burke and Duncan James take on Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn. (In fact, since publishing this post, Todrick Hall has been announced as the final Flynn in this run).

The debate around stunt casting seems to fall into two main camps: 1. it’s not fair to those who have trained for years and are much more talented vs. 2. celebrity names ultimately bring bigger and often more diverse audiences to the theatre, hopefully to stay. The blurred line is with those who did train in theatre, or are justifiably talented, but have found fame through other routes first. 

Anyway, debating aside: is this production all about the celebrity casting? In short, no. There is certainly no sense of the two on a pedestal above the rest, and with credit to Burke, James and the rest of the cast, they blend seamlessly into the mix.  

Alexandra Burke will make an excellent Roxy - GUILTY

So, so guilty. Given that Alexandra Burke has made a real name for herself as a musical theatre performer in her own right and secured a large space in the hearts of theatregoers thanks to her stellar performances in The Bodyguard and Sister Act, she is almost exempt from the celebrity casting label, though there’s no doubt she will have drawn in a wider audience. 

Roxy’s numbers aren’t akin to those we’ve grown used to hearing Burke belt across an auditorium; they’re more controlled, subtle and subdued. However, Burke is a true professional and proves herself as a versatile and insightful performer. And this is by no means a carbon copy of every rendition of Roxy that has come before; Burke draws on a dorkiness that really emphasises the comedic significance of the show, with exceptional facial expressions that threaten to bound right across the stage and steal the show. 

Alexandra Burke’s run in Chicago ends on 10th November, and I can only apologise that this post is going up with so little time left to catch her performance. 

The space would be better served championing new writing, over regurgitating the same old classics - JURY STILL OUT

Putting commercial pressures aside, of course we’d all love to see some of these leading London venues supporting brilliant new musicals, up-and-coming writing or even fresh West End transfers. In an ideal world, the West End would be dominated by original theatre, instead of stuffed full of the same revivals and jukebox musicals, but that may never be feasible in an industry with dwindling investment and funding. 

And it comes back to this question: if a classic like Chicago can continue to fill a venue like the Phoenix year on year, encouraging people to support the arts and inspiring new theatregoers, then is it really such a bad thing?

Chicago is running at the Phoenix Theatre until 5th January.

*I was gifted this ticket, but all words and opinions are my own. 
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