OLDHAM’S Coliseum Theatre has a history of brave productions, so it’s no surprise it’s been granted the first rights to produce a new take on the popular musical Chicago, the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and their trials for murder.
Setting the show as intended in a vaudeville theatre works well with the Coliseum stage and also makes sense of the outfits worn by the female cast members.
This production takes the jazz-influenced musical back to its original vaudeville roots. Each song becomes a vaudeville number, based on a traditional vaudeville style or artist, underpinning the view that ‘in this city, murder is entertainment’.
Strangely and outrageously, it’s not so far from the truth.
While working for the Chicago Tribune, reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins covered the stories of notorious women charged with killing their lovers or husbands. The detail of their lives and crimes fascinated the public, fed by rival press accounts, and generated huge interest in their trials.
Watkins authored Chicago as a play, and it was transformed for the stage by the hugely successful writing trio of John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, creating a musical satire on celebrity, murder, and the justice system. The writers changed the names and a few of the facts, but maybe not much else.
The Coliseum’s production does justice to the work. Though smaller in scale than the film, it’s hardly small and there are often eighteen performers on stage, including a tight band. Performances are strong throughout from leads to smaller or chorus roles.
I enjoyed Adam Barlow’s empathetic Amos, the loving and faithful husband of the unloving and unfaithful Roxanne. His rendition of ‘Mister Cellophane’ is beautifully presented. Adam C Booth’s Billy Flynn with a flair for timing and plenty of charm knocks out a mean ‘Razzle Dazzle’. Marianne Benedict’s Velma Kelly is strong and sassy while Helen Power’s Roxie Hart, a petulant, murderous, manipulative vixen, is nevertheless immensely appealing. Her dawning realisation of the power she has to take control of her life unfolds brilliantly.
The ensemble work is strong, accurate, powerful.
The show is well known from its West End production and tour, and from the film, the one in which Catherine Zeta Jones astounded people with her singing and dancing skills. The stage show is inevitably on a smaller scale, but performances are just as engaging.
Setting the show as intended in a vaudeville theatre works well with the Coliseum stage and also makes sense of the outfits worn by the female cast members. Period costumes throughout are beautifully designed. The band is sharp and the choreography owes much of its style to the recognisable Bob Fosse.
On the night I was there the show felt a little uninspired at the start. Clear, accurate and well-told, but just a little flat. It may be due to a combination of an earlier matinee performance followed by a disappointingly small house for the evening, or it may just be the fact so many musicals today open at a high emotional pitch, leaving little room for development. This production builds, and very soon the all-round quality grabs you and pulls you into the story.
It’s a great show, a great night out, and deserves full houses.
Chicago at The Oldham Coliseum runs until Saturday 12 October 2013.
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