Reviews West End & Central Published 17 April 2018

Review: Chicago at Phoenix Theatre

He had it coming: Alice Saville’s review of the sexy, slick courtroom story takes the form of a trial transcript.

Alice Saville

Chicago at Phoenix Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A transcript of the trial of ‘Chicago: The Musical’, on the charges of being outdated, phony, and sexist, and otherwise an unseemly addition to the 2018 West End.

~~~Opening remarks~~~

Counsel for the Defence: In a genre that’s teeming with daffy comedies and sappy love stories, Chicago is a musical with edge. It’s back in the West End and I put it to you, gentlemen of the jury, that it’s worth of your support.

This a show about five women whose love isn’t bought with flowers, fine gestures and bravura tap dance routines. It’s bought with cash, or legal defence, or the promise of fame and adulation. This is a show about women who use men. And if men disappoint them, they take violent revenge. Offences from snapping gum to bigamy are punished with righteous zero tolerance and a kind of SCUM-style vigilante fury. And they navigate and manipulate the fucked up…

Judge: Language, please!

Defence: Okay, err, ‘warped’ sexual politics of 1920s America. They exploit a world that’s obsessed with their beauty to ensure their survival, using sexiness and childlike innocence as weapons against the men who want to put them away.

[Whoops and cheers from the crowd in the gallery]

Counsel for the Prosecution: But aren’t we past this spiked-heeled, leather-clad, sexy-Lara-Croft school of feminism? Isn’t it just as sexist to depict a world where women argue with their looks and bodies, not with their words? 

Chicago is ripe for updating. But the only concession this calcified production has made to 2018 is in casting Cuba Gooding Jr, a big star who lends some undeniable charisma but croaks and struggles his way through Billy Flynn’s songs. Otherwise it’s New York director Walter Bobbie’s 1996 production, all the way.  In William Ivey Long’s costume design, almost the entire female cast is outfitted in variations on black bra and pant sets, their obligatory 2% spandex tested to its limits in a series of gusset-first dance moves. It’s the kind of stuff we were still just about buying as ’empowering’ in the era of the Spice Girls, but now it looks tired, try hard.

Roxie and Velma’s story feels so implausible it’s impossible to emotionally connect to it. And their dubious status as feminist icons is also utterly undermined by the fact that they need hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn to make their arguments for them: he does the difficult wordy stuff, they just pout and play along. And they turn on each other, too, scrabbling for fame with no female solidarity in sight.

Defence: You say that Chicago is implausible. Let me call to the stand my first witness, Beulah Annan.

Beulah Annan, pictured with her lawyer William Scott Stewart

She’s the real-life inspiration for the author of the original 1926 play, Chicago, which was written by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins. This pioneering female journalist-turned-playwright based her story closely on her time working as a court reporter and following the cases of the women on the city’s so-called ‘Murderesses’ Row’.

Beulah, did you shoot your lover?

Beulah Annan: [smiles demurely] I did

Defence: Why?

Beulah Annan: Because he was going to shoot me! We both grabbed for the gun.

Defence: And there we have it. It’s also a matter of public record that she played the Victrola as her lover lay dying, earning her the monicker ‘the Jazz Killer’. She also changed her story three times during the legal process. And although her husband funded her defence, she left him the day after the ‘not guilty’ verdict was passed: and went on to take two more husbands. Beulah is the clear inspiration for the role of Roxie, and she’s a real, complex figure who’s captured by Fosse’s book.

And now I’d like to call my second witness, Belva Gaertner, a former cabaret singer who since being acquitted for murder, has divorced her husband and found a new career. Tell us about it, Belva.

Belva Gaertner, cabaret singer acquitted of the murder of Walter Law, sitting and looking at her defense attorney, Thomas D. Nash, 1924.

Belva Gaertner: You see, my divorce left me with $3,000, my car, my furniture, and a billiard table””that was the table from which Mrs. Gaertner took the balls and hid them when I insisted on playing with my detectives who were watching me. Well, I just can’t take orders from anyone. Therefore I can’t hold a job. I must be my own boss. So I decided to be a taxi driver. I’d be my own boss, make enough to live on, and still have the pleasure of the car.

Defence: As you can see, Belva is a real and, if you’ll pardon me Madam Gaertner, colourful woman, who thoroughly deserves being immortalised as Velma. And if that’s not enough evidence of all the intriguing women whose real lives are explored in Chicago, good people of the jury, let it be known that another woman was the driving force behind converting it from play to musical: actress and dancer Gwen Verdon, who went on to create the role of Roxie. She saw the 1942 film version, became sure it would make a great musical, so she bought the rights and convinced Bob Fosse to take on the project. Girl power indeed!

I put it to you that Chicago was created by, and appeals to, women because fundamentally it’s about how we perform our lives: Bob Fosse’s Brechtian approach has a constant self-consciousness which makes each performer take on the role of housewife, temptress, vaudeville star. It’s imposter syndrome made flesh. And if it feels hard and cynical, it’s because it depicts a commercial, sensation-obsessed world where true authenticity, where being yourself, is the most dangerous thing of all.

Prosecution: With the greatest of respect to Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan [they wave their gloved hands, resplendent in pearls] might I note that these women lived their very interesting and full lives with their clothes on. Allow me to present:

~~~Exhibit A: the costumes for Chicago.~~~

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Doesn’t it undermine their stories if each fresh twist is accompanied by a flash of nylon gusset, instead of an appropriately fabulous 1920s ensemble? And I’d also like to note that in real life, Beulah and Belva were good friends: a witness has issued a statement saying that “They cut each other’s hair in the latest style. They discussed how to wear cosmetics. They gave themselves and each other manicures.” But in adapting their story, Bob Fosse’s book pits them against each other. Furthermore, Maurine Dallas Watkins also wrote that Murderess’s Row housed several women of colour, whereas the imprisoned women in the production are all white.

And I know this isn’t exactly a documentary, but whatever the origins of these women’s tales, it’s hard to imagine a less accurate representation of the way that the vast majority of women exist in the prison system. Instead of being the perpetrators of crimes against men, more than half of women in prison have been affected by domestic violence, and have often been in coercive and controlling relationships that are related to their offences. Chicago makes an unjust justice system look like a joke. And it also feels unacceptably white, homogenous, and in thrall to the restrictive standards of beauty in mainstream culture: an anachronism in a world where shows like Orange is the New Black have shown us that the reality of life as a female prisoner is anything but sexy.

~~~Closing Arguments~~~

Defence: I concede that the production might seem old-fashioned, or even unlovable. But to criticise it as such is to miss the heart of Fosse’s genius, and his use of a distinctly American idiom to satirise the nation’s populist, warped, sensationalist media, in all its outlandish glory. He grew up in a vaudeville family, and was performing in variety acts before he hit his teens. Chicago is essentially a series of turns: and each perfectly-pitched song is an ingenious homage to a real-life vaudeville performer’s work.  And if his stars don’t wear many clothes, they can’t scandalise us as much as their predecessors shocked the tabloids with their exposed knees. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, knowing story that’s built up traditions as its own: Sarah Soetaert and Josefina Gabrielle have played Roxie and Velma multiple times, and their status as seasoned modern day vaudeville troopers shows in this production’s immaculately accurate, stylised approach to their stories.

At its cold, icy heart, Chicago is that rare thing: a musical that doesn’t define women by the men they’ve loved. It allows them sexual agency, and Ann Reinking’s choreography is a surging celebration of sex, liberated from the cheap sentiment of the vaudeville genre Fosse was raised within, and grew up to rebel against.

[Cheers – a black lace bra is flung from the audience]

Prosecution: Rebel? It’s smartly done, but this show is playing to gallery, just like its ‘murderesses’. It gives the people what they want. Lashings of smut and tease and tunes, in a series of skits that give us no time to get to know these women, that prioritise jokes over character development. And I can see how its satire of an easily-manipulated-media might have bitten back in 1996, where the tabloids were doing endless sleazy battle with half the royal family. But these days, things are more complicated. People are manipulated with an endless torrent of subtle, personalised propaganda delivered directly to their mobile phones. And women who try to use their sexuality as a weapon are quickly undone in a world of revenge porn and online gendered abuse. It’s time the sexy-female-convicts-in-fishnets trope died. Hopefully to be replaced one that doesn’t require the entire female cast to get a bikini wax.

[Outcry from the jury and assembled spectators]

Judge: Order! Order! Well, good people of the jury, is the defendent guilty as charged? You must consider all the evidence, and deliver your verdict.

[Jury depart to begin their deliberations, tapdancing as they go. In the distance, a jazz band strikes up, and sirens are heard. The court reporters rush off to file their copy, certain that ‘Chicago’ will give ’em the old razzle dazzle, and get off scot-free.]

For full details of the women whose stories inspired Chicago, read contemporary reporting on their cases here and more interesting background in Scott Mills’ book chapter. Chicago is on at Phoenix Theatre until 23rd June. Book tickets here.


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: Chicago at Phoenix Theatre Show Info

Directed by Walter Bobbie (original New York production), Stacey Haynes (resident director)

Written by Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse

Choreography by Ann Reinking

Cast includes Cuba Gooding Jr, Sarah Soetaert, Josefina Gabrielle, Ruthie Henshall, Paul Rider, Alan Richardson, Michelle Antrobus, Natalie Bennyworth, Nicola Coates, Frances Dee, Francis Foreman, Zoe Gappy, Emma Harris, Luke Jarvis, Chelsea Labadini, Joanna Rennie

Original Music John Kander



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