There’s razzle-dazzle to spare in the London production of “Chicago,” and even one seriously strange performance won’t spoil the wild time. Seen on the West End, where it’s likely to be for years, Walter Bobbie’s sleek, smart staging more than ever looks like a rebuttal to the excesses of the British musical. That such a pared-down production can entrance an audience with an 11th-hour celebration of glitz (“Razzle Dazzle”) is an irony that will be lost on no one. Or as Billy Flynn would put it, “That’s showbiz, kid.”
As played by Henry Goodman, this Billy is the ultimate shyster, a no-goodnik closer to the defining sleaze of the show’s first Billy, Jerry Orbach, than to the part’s smooth (and ever so slightly bland) current Broadway inhabitant, James Naughton. Goodman epitomizes the bite and attack of this West End version at its best, laying bare the horror beneath the character’s love of hype.
The question of whether a London company could dance the show is answered, generally, yes, particularly as regards a leggy, muscle-bound chorus. Perhaps more truly English are the acting chops, starting with Goodman. As Roxie, Ruthie Henshall is far too young for someone who admits to being “older than I ever intended to be.” (Broadway’s inimitable Ann Reinking spoke the same line like a saucer-eyed Lear.) Although Henshall knows when to drop the kewpie doll theatrics and cut to the quick, she’s a lilting Roxie who, as of yet and through no fault but that of sheer age, hasn’t fully lived.
An onstage band under Gareth Valentine’s baton is one of the many virtues of a production whose electrifying physical design is even cleaner and more burnished on this side of the Atlantic.
True, Meg Johnson’s Mama, C. Shirvell’s Mary Sunshine and Nigel Planer’s hangdog Amos are little better than obvious. But the sticking point for many is likely to be Ute Lemper’s Velma, a big, bizarre performance that exudes an air of having assimilated certain moves without really understanding them. It’s the difference between imitation, no matter how heartfelt, and inhabitation: She doesn’t appear to feel the part in her bones.
There’s no mistaking Lemper’s style: No one else could make the opening lyrics of “Class” sound like Kurt Weill. But one doesn’t have to have seen (and been knocked out by) Broadway’s Bebe Neuwirth to note Lemper’s lack of control in what plays like a calculated star turn gone haywire. With legs that go for days, she’s poised to knock the audience out, but instead her steps are as exaggerated as the American accent that makes her “Hello suckers” sound as if it’s being spoken by Bugs Bunny. Unlike Bugs, Lemper’s no natural clown, with more wit in one flick of Neuwirth’s wrist than in all the impressive leg extensions and chair-straddling here.
Still, the performance is never boring, and, of course, neither is the show. Indeed, there’s a certain justice to a musical about celebrity that has proven to be bigger than any celebrity in it. It’s the offstage genius, this time around, that one most applauds as “Chicago” takes a song-and-dance scalpel to a pistol-happy people in a staging so assured that it can’t help but go off with a bang.