Theatre Review: Chicago, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Comedy
Date: September 12 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

What price would you pay to achieve fame? We’ve all heard of the Z-listers who were willing to do anything to get a bit of press coverage, regardless of how they were viewed and no matter how immoral their actions may have seemed. Then there’s those who achieve fame by association, or rather they make their name by attaching themselves to a big name. Some showcase unseen talents; others are clearly just wanting to get their name in the papers, sometimes by making allegations that on occasion may not even have a sliver of truth (cough cough, Rebecca Loos, cough cough). In a nutshell, some people have no problem behaving in a certain manner if it means their name gets covered in the tabloids.

But even so, how far would you be willing to go to become famous, or infamous as it may be? Would you be willing to take somebody else’s life just to be talked about by the general public? True, there are some loons who have committed vile acts because they “wanted to be famous”, but generally speaking even the most fame-hungry person who has a semblance of logic and normality to their consciousness would not go that far to be recognised. That is the background for the plot in Chicago, but don’t worry: the opening to this review may make you feel like this show is doom and gloom, with the worst people that you could possibly encounter being highlighted. No, Chicago handles this desire for fame in a darkly comical fashion, and the roundabout method of becoming a “star” is an interesting twist that, along with some good comedy material and plenty of strong acting performances, vocal renditions and dance routines all combine to deliver a memorable and engaging show.

Well, the true story behind Chicago is that a cheating wife, Roxie Hart (Hayley Tamaddon), kills the man who she is having an affair with, and is looking to escape a prison sentence with the assistance of a crafty, well-spoken lawyer who takes a real business approach to his cases. Far from being ashamed or guilty at her crime, Roxie looks at the press attention she receives as a gift, and a well-earned one too, and the handling of her case by lawyer Billy Flynn (John Partridge) is akin to the management of an up-and-coming band by a record label producer. Velma Kelly (Sophie Carmen-Jones) is also heading on trial for the same crime (involving another victim, obviously), and the jealousy and tension is clear to see as they attempt to one-up each other for attention, ranging from extravagant dance moves to sudden announcements of pregnancy. In the meantime, Billy is doing his bit to both clear his client’s names (even though they are clearly guilty) and receive as much money and attention as possible, whilst the odd man out, the gullible yet loveable Amos Hart, Roxie’s husband, has to blindly go along with the charade, even though he has been cheated on and is paying his wife’s legal bills.

It’s an intriguing tale. If somebody explained the crux of the plot beforehand – an attempt to avoid hanging for committing a murder – one would think that this was a serious drama, or possibly even a thriller. But the attitudes of the murdering women are so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh; for instance, the eventual trial turns onto something resembling a huge musical performance with backing singers adding their two pennies, rather than the serious and emotional situation that one would usually expect (the difference between this and court scenes in Coronation Street are like night and day; ironically, there never seems to be true justice in crime stories on Corrie either). It’s very tongue-in-cheek, to the point where you forget thinking about the lack of moral compass amongst the characters and you simply sit back and enjoy it, wondering what crazy antics are coming next.

And it leaves one with interesting thoughts to ponder. By all accounts, Chicago wasn’t exactly the nicest place to live during the early 20th century. At a time when Prohibition ruled and with the aftermath of the First World War having not long passed, not to mention this being a time of excess prior to the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929, there was a lot of – how should I put it – questionable behaviour going on. The term “sleeping around” was often considered to be almost a requisite as opposed to a controversial lifestyle decision, and the lack of morality in bringing such affairs to a sudden, deadly close would not raise as many eyebrows as you would think (let’s not forget that gangsters were at something of a peak in the US during this time). Also, this was long, long before social media and even a while before television was really a big thing. People found out what was going on by reading newspapers and listening to radio, but only papers provided photographic evidence of people and happenings back then. And since this was way, way before reality shows could turn someone into a (cough, cough; I must have a sore throat today) “star” and with movies still in the silent phase, there was a lot more news reporting of crimes than there would be today. Ergo, those accused of committing a crime achieved greater notice and, I use the term very loosely, fame, or recognition. Of course, the vast majority probably didn’t go as over-the-top in their desire to be famous as Roxie and co do here, but it will have existed in the minds of some. Then, there’s the slippery manoeuvrings of lawyers who would find a way to ensure that even guilty parties avoided sentences, allowing them to sleep around even more … and possibly kill more people … and get in the papers for being on trial again, resulting in more recognition … and so on.

I mentioned earlier the comparison between the characters here looking to become famous for murderous crimes and aspiring celebrities or singers. The similarities hit you like a Chicago Cubs baseball (see what I did there? Oh never mind). There is the desire to be recognised, and the willingness to do absolutely anything in the process. There’s the idea of making the most of one’s fifteen minutes of fame, from the way one dresses to the way one speaks. There’s the desperate attempts to remain relevant and/or newsworthy when somebody new takes the spotlight. There’s the agent-esque advice by Billy on what steps to take to maximise press exposure and to manipulate others into creating situations that are to the benefit of your need for the spotlight. And there’s the ultimate message at the end of the show, which is essentially that in the world of celebrity, it’s a case of “What have you done for me lately?” The press will latch onto something that they feel will sell papers, attract viewers/listeners etc, and they have no problem dropping you like a bad habit if something that is comparatively more exciting comes along. It’s a lesson that young celebrity wannabes should take into account; the number of overnight stars who ended up having personal problems because they couldn’t cope with handling or losing fame is vast.

But whilst there are some messages that can be applied to real-life, the show as a whole is very much a comedy. As noted earlier, Chicago enters a point early on where it’s clear that we don’t really need to judge the characters, because almost everyone we see is so ridiculously lacking in morality and so willing to achieve fame and fortune on any level that it’s a lot easier to go along for the ride and just enjoy what’s on display. And there is plenty to enjoy: the acting performances are strong, particularly from John Partridge. The singing performances are largely excellent, with a couple of outstanding moments in certain numbers (referring back to Partridge, who I personally thought was the star of the show: he delivers a sensational high-pitched solo note that seems to last around 30 seconds which is a show highlight), and there are a lot of enjoyable songs which you may find yourself singing along to, such as All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango, We Both Reached For The Gun, Me and My Baby and Razzle Dazzle, most of which are accompanied by excellent backing dancers.

Some slight downsides: I didn’t really understand how central characters would sometimes break the fourth wall and introduce us, the audience, to certain numbers; it took me out of the show experience for a little bit. The setting remained generic throughout which was okay, but I expected more from such a major production than a standard lit-up frame (which housed the orchestra who were fantastic, by the way), and at one point the lights shone so bright that I was temporarily blinded! This is an observation rather than a complaint, but Jessie Wallace only played a fairly minor role as Matron “Mama” Morton; she was good whenever she appeared on-stage, but one would have expected her to have a larger role, considering that she was the biggest name attached to the production. And it wasn’t the most pleasant audience I’ve sat in, with some sort of hullaballoo occurring right at the end close to where I was sitting (perhaps they overdid it on the, erm, refreshments), and the amount of coughing during some of the quieter scenes made me wonder if Bob Fleming from The Fast Show had popped in for the evening.

But those are very minor downsides: Chicago was an excellent show to watch. You may have seen the 2002 movie based on what was actually the original musical from 1975, so chances are that you’ll know a bit of what to expect. But if you haven’t and are looking to give this show a try, I would strongly suggest that you do. A very successful start to the autumn season for the Liverpool Empire Theatre, Chicago is a fun, unpredictable, exciting and ultimately entertaining show that will be one of the more memorable productions that you will see this year. Just try not to mimic the actions of the characters if you are looking to achieve fame yourself!

Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent