Monday, 10 December 2018

REVIEW: Chicago - The Theatre, The Students' Union, Manchester.


Kander and Ebb's superbly crafted Brechtian musical lovingly acknowledging both the theatrical institution which was Vaudeville, and the state of the country's judicial system in one fell swoop, is still as thrilling and as relevant today as it was at the time this musical was set, America's 'Jazz Age' of the 1920s / 1930s.

The book for the musical is based very heavily on the 1926 novel by Maureen Dallas Watkins, which tells us all we really need to know about the 'corrupt' state of Chicago, especially Cook County, which made celebrities out of the young and pretty ladies who murdered their husbands. It was generally accepted that only the men would hang, since all the jurors were all male, and would never want to be the ones to be responsible for putting a rope around a young and beautiful female neck. Often these rich young wives would earn celebrity status through these trials, and the newspapers would employ middle-aged women to report on the trials from a female perspective in order to garner more sympathy for the accused. These reporters were known as 'sob-sisters'. The characters of both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly are based on real murderesses tried during the 1920s in Chicago..

In this very youthful and energetic performance by the UMMTS [University Of Manchester Musical Theatre Society], we found ourselves once again in the top floor converted chambers of the Students' Union building. I really think this society is now fast outgrowing this space. For their Chamber Musicals it is ideal, but for larger scale and more adventurous musical productions which the society are now producing, I think they need to start looking elsewhere for a more suitable venue (budget permitting!).

Their production of Chicago, despite it being hugely entertaining and up-beat, lacked cohesion and direction. I have said this before, but will say it again, Manchester's university is a fertile ground for latent talent, and UMMTS have a knack of finding that talent, no matter which subject the student is studying. However, sometimes, these Musical productions would be improved upon by employing an outside professional director.  Unfortunately, Chicago suffered I think, due to the director(s) not either understanding what was required, or being too 'soft' since they too were students and friends with the cast.

Georgina Rosser was a suitable Velma Kelly, but she does not always have to be angry and embittered and doesn't need to bare her teeth and shout all the time. Kelly is far more nuanced and rounded than that. Roman Armstrong was Amos Hart, and despite putting in a hugely creditable performance, was far too strong and noticeable throughout, and his doing magic tricks during his solo was just simply wrong. Jess Stoddard was a butch and forthright Mama Morton, and was giving 150% to her role all the time, when just half of that would have been perfect. I have seen majority of this cast perform in other shows before, and know they are indeed talented and can take direction. 

A lot of the comedy was lost too sadly. I understand why the society would have felt it necessary to have a female Mary Sunshine - and Helena Stanway did a grand job in this role - but sadly it lost a lot of the 'feel' to the character and the reveal was pointless. Why not simply cut the two lines of dialogue at the end of the song.

The show's opening was also bare. It would have been more preferable to have had the chorus onstage and dancing right from the start, and a lot of time was wasted each entrance and exit since it seemed a very long way to travel from the stage to the wings via the band. And since Dexter Brown, the Musical director this evening, showed he was also a very excellent announcer / MC, then why not use him to announce everything rather than different people doing it each time which was somewhat confusing. Talking of the music, it sounded wonderful, but was just mic'd too loudly throughout, especially during chorus numbers when the chorus were left un-mic'd.

Each musical number is a 'homage' to Vaudeville acts and the American Music Hall style of these songs is evident in every song; also, whether we like it or not, the choreographic style of Bob Fosse has become synonymous with this show, and so it is almost expected that the choreographer will pay their little 'homage' to Fosse when choreographing. The one number which really and truly hit the spot completely for me was 'Me And My Baby' which saw Roxie Hart singing with two adult babies in nappies. This was a complete joy. Other songs though were crying out for accessories such as ostrich feathers for Billy Flynn's 'All I Care About Is Love', and notebooks and cameras for 'We Both Reached For The Gun'.  The all black base costumes worked as did the lack of set and stage props, very Brechtian and in keeping with the concept of the show; but it was crying out for more costume and prop additions for each section.

Sorry, I seem to have got a little carried away with myself; apologies, but it is a show which I know backwards and absolutely adore. There were many positive things about this show though. Jess Adams' Roxie Hart was very well placed and I enjoyed her interpretation very much. Charlie White was a good, if far too young, Billy Flynn; but he certainly understood the character, and made it his own. The other murderesses in jail for 'The Cell Block Tango' were very good, and I appreciated very much Hunyak's authentic-sounding Hungarian. The show was kept light and for the most part swift, and the singing from all was excellent.

The performers in the show deserved their enthusiastic and loud applause this evening, they have worked extremely hard and their dedication did not go un-noticed or un-appreciated. And despite my negativity, I also enjoyed the show very much. Perhaps I am being uber-critical, but have seen this society do better and this show would certainly have benefited from much stricter and tighter directing and a little bit more colour. The cast were giving us the old 'razzle dazzle' but didn't have the accoutrements to accompany it with.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 8/12/18

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