Jun 14 2016 | By More

★★★★☆   Murderously merry

Edinburgh Playhouse Mon 13 – Sat 18 June 2016
Review by Martin Gray

Those merry murderesses are back on the Playhouse stage for a Chicago that isn’t perfect but definitely doesn’t deserve the death sentence.

The musical Chicago is based on a Twenties stage show of the same name, but it’s skewering of ‘celebrity criminals’ makes its story as relevant today as ever it was. Mind, audiences don’t come for relevancy, they come for the songs of Kander & Ebb, the choreography of Bob Fosse and the star performances.

Sam Bailey, Sophie Carmen-Jones and Hayley Tamaddon. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Sam Bailey, Sophie Carmen-Jones and Hayley Tamaddon. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

In this case, the stars above the Playhouse door are Hayley Tamaddon – formerly of Emmerdale, but for our purposes a cracking Lady in the Lake in a Spamalot that hit the capital a while back. There’s John Partridge, best known for EastEnders but a man with an enviable musicals CV. And there’s Sam Bailey, who won the X Factor in 2013 with a massive public vote.

The star who should be sharing the billing is Sophie Carmen-Jones, an up and comer who plays Velma Kelly, one of Chicago’s two big female roles, but without TV recognition, no chance. Happily, in the show itself, the superb Carmen-Jones – and how’s that for an example of nominative determinism, please let it be real – gets the respect she deserves, taking her final bows with Tamaddon.

Tarmaddon plays Roxie Hart, tossed into the Prohibition penal system when her lover is inconveniently found in a pool of blood. Husband Amos stands by her, believing her story that victim Fred was a burglar. In prison, Roxie meets Velma Kelly, who killed her own sister – with whom she had a Vaudeville contortionist act – and husband over the little matter of an affair. Under the tutelage of wily prison warden Mama Morton, Velma’s been playing a scandalous game, using flashy lawyer Billy Flynn to, hopefully, get her pots of publicity and win her freedom. Then she plans to parlay her notoriety into a new, bigger act.

intimate cabaret show

When Roxie arrives at the Big House, with a fresher, juicier crime and steals the lawyer, well, enough sparks fly to rival any electric chair…

Hayley Tamaddon, John Partridge and Ensemble. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Hayley Tamaddon, John Partridge and Ensemble. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Chicago is unusual among big stage musicals in that it’s mounted as an intimate cabaret show, with no sets unless you count the on-stage band box. Given the Playhouse is one of the UK’s biggest theatres, intimacy doesn’t come easy – it’s up to the performers to draw us in. And draw us in they do – well, the traditional tiny outfits, with sheer panels and bare chests aplenty (men-only!) help, but it’s the quality of performances that make this a show worth seeing.

Tamaddon is a wee firecracker, a pocket rocket of terrific talent and twinkly attitude. She has a rich, adaptable voice that was shown to good effect in Funny Honey and Me and My Baby, while her final duet with Carmen-Jones, Nowadays, is a delight.

Their contrasting heights make them a fun pairing, visually, but Carmen-Jones is the perfect partner-in-crime all round. Her liquid moves in opener All That Jazz are hypnotic, while her honeyed tones are displayed especially well on the brilliantly ironic Class, a duet with Sam Bailey’s Mama Morton – kudos to vocal arranger Rob Fisher for that one, especially.

Bailey is a revelation. As the girls in Gypsy said, you gotta have a gimmick, and on the X Factor her hook was that this knockout singer worked in a prison. So having her play the money-grabbing matron is shameless stunt casting. As it turns out, it’s a small stroke of genius. Her controlled melancholy in Class really helped sell the song, while traditional barnstormer When You’re Good To Mama brings the prison walls down.

charm for half of Ireland

The only lead with whom there is any real problem is Partridge. I’ve seen him on many a TV show, he’s a fantastic dancer, has a decent singing voice and enough charm for half of Ireland. And Billy Flynn is a role built on charm. Sadly, Partridge brings out the Mephistophelean side of the showbiz shyster while downplaying the charisma.

John Partridge and Ensemble. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

John Partridge and Ensemble. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

He works so hard at give a convincing accent – Southern, I’d venture – that his diction suffers; often it is tough to make out his words, a rushed delivery not helping. His introductory number, All I Care About is Love, is especially problematic, though he is better in the showstopping We Both Reached For the Gun, as Tamaddon becomes his literal puppet. Razzle Dazzle does give him a chance to show off his hoofing, and boy, can he hold a note. If he slows down a tad, the performance likely will dazzle – Partridge certainly has the goods.

Neil Ditt makes Amos adorable, especially in his showcase number Mister Cellophane, a sad ditty that builds to Al Jolson proportions, and he delivers one of the best exit lines in musical theatre with appropriate relish. The excellent AD Richardson displays a magnificent soprano, high enough to alarm dogs city-wide, as sensationalist hack Mary Sunshine. And Francis Foreman’s playing out of Fred’s murder as Roxie lies her face off in court showed a true gift for physical comedy.

Most of the time, Foreman is in the ensemble, whose members are a massive part of the show. From the girls who join Velma in the super-sexy and delightfully cynical Cell Block Tango (that’s the one with the refrain, ‘He had it coming’) to the boys who manage to play cops, judges and reporters while clad, barely, in fetish gear, they’re really rather fantastic.

Even the members of the tight orchestra get to be mildly lewd, tossing themselves around with abandon as they play like devils in the Act Two Entr’acte. Musical director Ben Atkinson wins big applause for throwing himself backwards over his stand…

The classic Chicago choreography, by Fosse and Ann Reinking, is pretty much untouchable, but Gary Chryst gets to tweak it as necessary for David Ian’s production and is obviously doing something right – the energy on stage could light the theatre. Maybe it did. Walter Bobbie directed the Nineties New York revival of which this is a version, so let’s give a shout-out to Tania Nardini, associate director of this tour, for a very together production.

Do Velma and Roxie get away with their crimes? Finding that out is sinfully enjoyable.

Running time: Two hours 35 minutes (including interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Monday 13 – Saturday 18 June 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Weds, Sat: 2.30pm.
Full details and tickets on the Playhouse website:

Chicago on tour 2016:
Mon 13 – Sat 18 Jun Edinburgh
Edinburgh Playhouse
0844 871 3014 Book online
Mon 20 – Sat 25 June Wolverhampton
The Grand Theatre
01902 429212 Book online
Mon 27 June – Sat 2 Jul Southend
Cliffs Pavilion
01702 351135 Book online
Mon 4 – Sat 9 Jul Bristol
Bristol Hippodrome
0844 871 3012 Book online
Mon 11 – Sat 16 Jul Aylesbury
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
08448 717 627 Book online
Mon 18th – Sat 23rd Jul Plymouth
Theatre Royal Plymouth
01752 230440 Book online
Mon 25 – Sat 30 Jul Cardiff
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464 Book online
Mon 1st – Sat 13th Aug Newcastle
Theatre Royal
08448 11 21 21 Book online
Mon 15 – Sat 20 Aug Nottingham
Theatre Royal
0115 989 5555 Book online
Mon 5 – Sat 11 Sep Belfast
Grand Opera House
02890 241919 Book online
Mon 12 – Sat 17 Sep Liverpool
Empire Theatre
08448 713 017 Book online
Mon 19 – Sat 24 Sep Glasgow
King’s Theatre
0844 871 7648 Book online
Mon 26 Sep – Sat 1 Oct Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122 Book online
Mon 10 – Sat 15 Oct Bromley
Churchill Theatre
08448 717 620 Book online
Mon 17 – Sat 22 Oct Woking
New Victoria Theatre
0844 871 7645 Book online
Mon 24 – Sat 29 Oct Canterbury
Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787 Book online
Mon 31 Oct – Sat 5th Nov Norwich
Theatre Royal
01603 63 00 00 Book online
Tue 22 – Sat 26 Nov Leeds
Grand Theatre
0844 848 2700 Book online
Mon 28 Nov – Sat 3 Dec Sunderland
Empire Theatre
0844 871 3022 Book online
Mon 12 – Sat 31 Dec Birmingham
New Alexandra Theatre
0844 871 3011 Book online


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