If this Kander and Ebb musical feels as if it has been with us for ever, that is because it has. It premiered in 1975, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, and was given a more minimalist revival by Walter Bobbie that bowed on Broadway in 1996 and came to London a year later. It is that version, now starring several Chicago veterans as well as Cuba Gooding Jr, that has been faithfully recreated and, while it is done with great professional skill, it is beginning to resemble an animated corpse.
That image is appropriate since the show is all about death: speaking of Chicago in the 1920s, it argues that “in this town murder is a form of entertainment”. Using the form of a Brechtian vaudeville, Kander and Ebb follow the story of Roxie Hart, a small-time hoofer who shoots her lover and exploits her mythical pregnancy to escape the rap.
Fame, however, is fleeting and Roxie soon finds that she is yesterday’s news. Her solution is to go into partnership with another headline-seeking killer, Velma Kelly, and form a touring sister act.
The show is harsh, cynical and funny and chimes well with an age that understands the psychotic nature of celebrity. I’m all for reviving old musicals, but this one has not been imaginatively rethought. Tania Nardini and Gary Chryst are credited, respectively, with recreating the 1996 direction and dance. But even in 1996’s revival, the choreography by Ann Reinking was “in the style of Bob Fosse”. His trademarks are still visible: the men sport tilted bowlers, there is much jutting of the bum and thrusting of the pelvis, and chairs are dragged backwards across the stage. He was a highly inventive choreographer but here the dance begins to feel not so much Fosse-ised as ossified.
Even if the production is a carbon copy, performers bring individuality. Sarah Soetaert invests Roxie with the elfin mischief of a naughty schoolgirl who, eyeing up the rippling muscles of the male chorus, coos: “These are my boys.” Josefina Gabrielle, another Chicago regular, plays Velma as the more hard-bitten of the two and does some impressive spins, twirls and high-kicks. As the self-seeking lawyer, Billy Flynn, Gooding Jr displays too much surface charm and sings modestly but hoofs energetically. Meanwhile, Ruthie Henshall, who played Roxie in London in 1997, now zestfully executes the role of the jail den-mother and Paul Rider inevitably scoops up the sympathy as Roxie’s discarded husband in a number, Mr Cellophane, celebrating his invisibility.
The lead actors all do their stuff, the ensemble is lively and the onstage band, under the direction of Ian Townsend, is exceptional: the evening’s best moment comes when the brass are given the spotlight at the start of the second act. But, while it is pleasant to renew acquaintance with numbers such as All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, everything is exactly as I remember it from 1997: that includes the chilling moment when a rope descends from the flies as a Hungarian girl dies protesting her innocence to remind us of the reality of judicial murder. For all the cast’s commitment, this is as much a piece of museum theatre as those old Soviet shows that went unchanged through the decades.