Belfast’s magnificent Grand Opera House provides a gorgeous setting for a spectacular new international touring production of Ebb, Kander and Fosse’s big, brassy musical Chicago.
The contrast between venue and stage presentation could not be more striking. Frank Matcham’s famous Victorian pleasure dome has recently been given a complete renovation and its ornate gilded furnishings, crimson plush seating and famous carved elephants are looking splendid.
On stage, all the stops of 21st century theatre technology have been pulled out to create a glossily stylised presentation of a story which has as much relevance today as to 1920s Chicago, where a high-profile courtroom clash between two manipulative, and manipulated, chorus girls Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart unfolds.
In the 1920s and 30s Chicago was a town run by gangsters, where women were heartlessly used and abused by a variety of unscrupulous men. In desperation, some took matters into their own hands, with fatal results. One of the show’s stand-out numbers Cell Block Tango uncompromisingly lays their motivation on the line.
The fact-based storyline originates from articles written by Maurine Watkins, a mild-mannered young journalist on the Chicago Tribune, who was assigned to cover the trials of a string of women accused of murder. Here reincarnated as the falsetto-voiced Miss Mary Sunshine (B E Wong), she provides the single moral compass in a lynch-mob of baying tabloid reporters, less concerned with telling a truthful story than with scooping sensational headlines. Sounds familiar?
The action moves between courtroom and prison, each presided over by a colourfully charismatic figure. Liam Marcellino is pleasingly subtle and stylish as money-grabbing, grandstanding celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn, whose speciality is in giving juries the old razzle dazzle treatment.
Within prison walls, it is the fabulous Sinitta Malone’s Mama Morton who rules the roost and calls the shots on the PR front. Her duet Class alongside Djalenga Scott’s Velma is one of the most memorable segments of the evening.
The single man of substance in this sorry tale is Roxie’s sad sap of a husband Amos, played with sweetness and integrity by Jamie Baughan.
But at the heart of the matter is the rivalry between sexually put-upon Roxie (somewhat underplayed on the second night by understudy Billie Hardy) and world-weary hoofer Velma. Long, lean Scott is the undisputed star of the show, fearless, indomitable and exuding tons of ironic, knowing humour.
After two long years of lockdown and confinement, the packed audience is out in force, dressed to kill in celebration of a return to live performance in the company of one of the truly great stage musicals of our time.
Runs 6 to 11 June 2022.