I have seen one too many productions of ‘Chicago’ in my time and I must say, this was one of the best. It had all the jazz and spectacle of Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation, plus an abundance of energy added for good measure. All in all, Lowri Mathias’ musical production was a success, providing the perfect escapism amongst all the coronavirus anxieties.
From the outset the audience were completely immersed into the 20s jazz age with the glorious music from the orchestra, visible behind the curtain, combined with a plethora of Peter Noble’s colourful lighting gels and smoke, adding to the wonders of the jazz club atmosphere. The decision to use a minimalist stage setting in an intimate black box theatre also captured this setting, whilst simultaneously creating the tone of the movie adaptation. Equally effective were the black costume designs. Particularly in ‘Cell Block Tango’, the black costumes stood out amongst the red lighting gels, creating the murderous mood and atmosphere of the Cook County Jail. This minimalism of costume allowed particular moments to stand out, such as when Velma and Roxie unveiled their golden dresses for their double-act, enhancing the spectacle of these final moments.
Mia Singleton’s portrayal of Roxie was delightful, bringing us the irredeemable murderess combined with moments of sassiness and emotion. From her coldness of expression when she shot Fred Casley, to her eye-fluttering towards Mary Sunshine and her swarm of journalists, one could not help but love her feistiness of character. One particularly notable moment was her fantastic portrayal of the miming puppet in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’. With her robotic mouth movements and vacant expression, this truly captured everything audiences love about this song. These moments of artificiality contrasted well with her genuine excitability in ‘Roxie’, as she directly addressed audience members and talked about her wishes for fame. One truly felt the motivations and desires of the character. Singleton revealed all the nuances behind Roxie Hart’s complex character, and delivered a very enjoyable performance.
The same can be said for Tamsin Matthewman’s Velma, whose energy was utterly infectious. She provided the perfect contrast to Singleton’s naïve search for fame, as Matthewman presented the audience with a frustrated star, watching her fame go down the plug hole. This was truly captured in ‘My Own Best Friend’, as her looks of irritation contrasted with Singleton’s pleading expression out to the audience. Matthewman’s energy continued throughout the show, starting the performance well with ‘All That Jazz’. Her strongest moments were seen in the numbers ‘I Can’t Do it Alone’ and ‘When Velma Takes the Stand’, where the audience truly felt the character’s humongous ego, as she wallowed in her own fabulousness. Every high kick, every feisty strut, every smirk out to the audience, was done with utter conviction and intention. There is no doubt about it – Singleton and Matthewman created a very compelling duo.
Ben Osland’s Billy Flynn brought onto the stage the narcissism and charming arrogance of the character, surpassing the egotism of Velma Kelly herself. From the outset Osland’s smiles out to the audience in ‘All I Care About’, truly dramatized the excessive self-importance of Billy Flynn. His crooner style was very well delivered, bringing with it the silky smoothness of jazz club vocals, reminiscent of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. He sustained the character’s abrupt matter-of-fact tone very well, similar in style to the iconic portrayal by Richard Gere.
Credit must also be given to Martin Shore’s Amos, whose sulky expressions and vague looks of innocence out to the audience never failed to amuse, particularly in his number ‘Mr. Cellophane’, one of the standout moments of the performance. His vocals were fantastic, particularly in the final section of ‘Mr. Cellophane’, which had all audience members cheering along. Equally compelling was Emily Bates’ Miss Sunshine, whose operatic vocals and sour smiles always brought enjoyment onto the stage. I particularly loved her movement and expression in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, as she well and truly presented Billy Flynn’s manipulation of the journalists. Additionally we have the wonderful sassiness of Amber Zijlma’s Mama Morton. Although, at times, I did want to see more of the feistiness of Morton – she did have very large shoes to fill, established by Queen Latifah’s unforgettable depiction in the movie. She did, however, provide the audience with fabulous energy, brought to life with her fantastic vocals in ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.
With all these engaging performances, Lauren Williams and Jess Hamilton’s choreography reminded me why I truly love musical theatre. The chair work in ‘Cell Block Tango’ was particularly enjoyable, as the murderesses each circled their chairs, placing them down in unison. Equally engaging was the smoothness of choreography in ‘All That Jazz’, and the fantastic lifts seen in the opening and the number ‘Roxie’. The choreography also echoed moments in the movie, particularly in the final number as Velma and Roxie cartwheeled across the stage. From tap dancing to swivelling hips – the choreography of Williams and Hamilton, brought to life by a fantastic chorus, truly helped to immerse the audience into the jazzy wonders of ‘Chicago’.
Lowri Mathias’ ‘Chicago’ was thoroughly enjoyable and if you are yet to flee Durham over coronavirus concerns, you simply must watch this fantastic musical and see for yourself. The show must go on, folks!
‘Chicago’ will be performed again at 7:30pm on 13th-15th March at the Mark Hillery Arts Centre.
By Josh Goodwin
Poster design by Molly Taylor and Jeanie Li.