For me, Maria Friedman had long been the music-theatre equivalent of the Taj Mahal: I had heard nothing but rhapsodies about her and seen her many times in print and on screen, but never been able actually to visit her in situ. As of Wednesday, mine eyes have seen the glory. I cannot directly compare Friedman and her fellows to their predecessors in the principal roles of Chicago, but I can and do praise them with great praise.
My colleague Alastair Macaulay, reviewing Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking's production of this Kander/Ebb/Bob Fosse musical on its West End opening a year or so ago, called it "repellent" and a "farrago". He is absolutely right: it is a morally odious tale celebrating women who get away with murder through bare-faced lying and manipulation of media and legal system alike, sung straight out from a bare stage whose only permanent prop is the orchestra slap-bang in the middle, and choreographed "in the style of Bob Fosse". Note that "in the style of" – the range of movements may be limited, yet where the recent failed revival of Sweet Charity recreated Fosse's choreography faithfully but passionlessly, Reinking recreates Fosse's characteristic... what's the word? Oh, let's be frank: she captures the filth of Fosse – down, dirty and intensely alluring.
As Velma Kelly, the eclipsed princess of Death Row, Nicola Hughes is more humanly proportioned than either Ute Lemper before her or many of the dancers around her... although, it has to be said, she will have her own eye out one of these days with those extraordinarily high kicks. In many another company the bold, brassy Hughes would dominate effortlessly. Here, though, she has visibly to toil to keep up with the apparently insouciant command of Friedman, taking over from Ruthie Henshall as her usurper, adulterous murderess Roxie Hart.
Although physically small, Friedman emits an immense aura that she is, quite simply, perfectly comfortable with who and where she is and what she is doing, be it swinging from a ladder or sitting on her attorney's lap like a ventriloquist's dummy. She has an exceptionally mobile face and range of fleeting expressions of self-consciousness which are beguiling rather than alienating; on a couple of occasions, her Roxie continues to nod her head along and snap her fingers after a number has finished. This is not a sinister, calculating Roxie who executes a masterplan with cold relish, but an enthusiastic, opportunistic one who seizes her chances and has warm, human fun in doing so. Friedman – along with Clarke Peters, consummately suave as ever as attorney Billy Flynn – seduces us through the moral repugnance of the events related; within the course of her first number, I had even forgotten that I find her vibrato on the heavy side and had simply settled, entranced, into her performance. Peter Davison, making his first appearance in a musical as Roxie's nebbish husband Amos, perhaps takes the injunction to blandness a little too far – although, to be fair, next to Friedman the National Grid might seem lacking in sparks.
Chicago is a show which celebrates everything that, during the daytime, we find deplorable about sensationalism, mendacity and superficiality. It is also far and away the most fun you are likely to have at a current London musical.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 1998
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage