Theatre: Too much hot air in the Windy City

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The Independent Culture
The jury is back, the verdict is in and, judging by most of the reviews, it's their kinda show, 'Chicago' is. Paul Taylor, our chief theatre critic, begs leave to appeal.

The inside leg measurements of the cast of Chicago must be at least three times the national average. And that's just the women. The effect, though, is more scary than sexy. It's like watching a genetically mutant version of Prisoner: Cell Block H. Playing Velma Kelly - the hard-bitten 1920s murderess media-massaged into Vaudeville notoriety - Ute Lemper thinks she's Marlene Dietrich crossed with Rosalind Russell, and comes over as a strenuous, wiry Olive Oyl after steroid treatment. She gives the role everything she's got and then some, and that's about twice as much as some of us can take.

Lemper's instincts for the kind of growly, tough-broad wit Velma dispenses are far from strong and when she attempts to be tongue-in-cheek, the tongue invariably lands up one of her nostrils. The production's sense of humour is often slightly out of kilter. There are dancers who make the late Bob Fosse's brand of choreography look intimidating, arousing, comic and jaw- droppingly sensual. But, as reconstructed here, without enough of that witty syncopated spirit, the trademark Fosse tricks - erotically tilted bowlers; knock-kneed angularities; gynaecol- ogical leg extensions; pelvic bumps and grinds etc - come across as largely sterile and occasionally near-pornographic.

Three cheers, therefore, for Henry Goodman and Ruthie Henshall. Surfing in on a crest of chorine ostrich feathers and an utterly hilarious "I'm Mr Showbiz and I can't get enough of me" conceit, Goodman lifts the spirits sky high as Billy Flynn, the media-manipulating shyster of a lawyer whose shameless stunts on behalf of the guilty are still all too topical. There's a wonderful, galvanic energy to the musical press conference where a jerking Ms Henshall becomes his ventriloquist's dummy. Though she's a bit too young for the part, Henshall's Roxie is deliciously incredulous of her new-found erotic pull. She writhes and purrs to the growling, wah-wah muted brass of Gareth Valentine's great band, flaunting her stud line- up of semi-clad chorus boys as a cat, fresh off a diet, might show off a vat of cream.

But the show's spirit is as cramped as its minimal staging concept, which gives too much space to the on-stage band and not enough room for the dancing to breathe. Chicago thinks it's a sardonic satire on a world where the only values are showbiz ones. In fact, it's the slimy, two-faced beneficiary of just such a world. You'd have more respect for it if it appeared to know what non-showbiz values might look like. Billy Wilder got to this gangsters-and-showmanship milieu long before Kander and Ebb and their ersatz, frenzy-inducing score. Chicago isn't Some Like It Hot - it's Some Like It Microwaved.

Adelphi Theatre, London WC2. Booking: 0171-344 0055

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