Musical: The hottest show in town reaches boiling point

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The Independent Culture


SOMETHING extraordinary has happened to Chicago. This shimmeringly sleazy, thrillingly heartless smash'n'grab on truth, justice and the American way is still the hottest show in town, but it just got better.

Walter Bobbie's world-wide hit revival focuses upon the cynical yet startlingly contemporary alliance between criminal guilt and glamour, as two "merry murderesses" of the Cook County Jail court celebrity, as it were, and walk free. Dressed in what looks like a cross between Donna Karan eveningwear and upmarket underwear, a new cast struts its stuff and paws the ground with all the seductive hauteur of a pack of lynxes on heat.

Dripping sex and decadence, the entire show is a giant come-on, but where the original company merely dazzled, the newcomers reveal previously hidden depths. A year ago, this came across as a cynical production of a brilliantly cynical show. Fascinatingly, Chicago now has a heart of darkness.

The secret is in the casting. Last year, it was all star turns. Now we are seeing a properly told story. Ute Lemper attacked the role of Velma like a whirling dervish. With cheekbones you could hang your wardrobe on and legs that went on for days, her sheer force threw you back into your seat. But after 10 minutes, you were dying for someone to turn her volume down. She seemed pathologically unable to use understatement.

By contrast, the smouldering, Amazonian Nicola Hughes majors in irony. She is deliciously incongruous as she switches between sneering grandeur and comic disingenuousness. There is now much more going on than just raging jealousy at the arrival of Roxie, the latest notorious killer- on-the-make.

Her voice pumps out John Kander's music and she also fleshes out Fred Ebb's tremendous, tart lyrics. There is little dialogue in the show's lean, mean structure but what is there has to work, and it now does, big time. Hughes blessedly plants gags with wonderful aplomb. This is not just a performance, it is a character, and much funnier.

Diane Langton is on fine snarling form as the keeper of the clink, and Clarke Peters is sublimely relaxed as the shyster lawyer, running the sham trial with ease or soft-shoeing it through Ann Reinking's Fosse- inspired choreography.

Dance, of course, is the core element of Chicago, dramatising and dictating the tone and temperature of the entire show. When it was announced that Maria Friedman was taking over as Roxie, the big question was: could she dance it? No worries. Snapping the brim of her bowler and kicking up her heels, she is sensational. In her magnetic solo, she loses herself in a fantasy of ego, humming ecstatically to herself, and her arousal fills the theatre. Her voice shimmers breathily and her character's dream of stardom is thrillingly made flesh.

Better still is the scene in which she meets her husband - beautifully played by Peter Davison - after she is released. In her moment of triumph she has been abandoned by the press. Her eyes widen in the darkness and her voice cracks as she whispers: "They didn't even want my picture." A tiny moment, but shockingly touching. You thought you knew Chicago? Look again.