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Chicago Razzle Dazzles on 10th anniversary

Published 17 April 2008

The Cambridge theatre was awash with talent yesterday as a phalanx of former Chicago cast members returned to the production for a special one-off 10th anniversary production of the sexy show. Original cast members Ruthie Henshall, Ute Lemper, Henry Goodman and Nigel Planer were among a collection of nine Roxie Harts, seven Velma Kellys, six Billy Flynns, six Amos Harts and four Mama Mortons.

The special gala performance held last night raised funds towards the work of Breast Cancer Haven and the Breast Health Institute. The celebration started at the early time of 18:30, so that stars including Goodman, Denise Van Outen and Jennifer Ellison could perform early in the production before heading to regular jobs in Fiddler On The Roof, Rent and Boeing Boeing. So tight was Goodman for time that he opened Chicago dressed as Tevye, putting a Jewish-Russian spin on a very American tale.

Speaking to Official London Theatre earlier in the day, Goodman said that from the very beginning he knew there was something special about the show: “I know it sounds outrageous to say so, because we are in a very fickle profession, but I did sense that this thing had a muscle and a verve that meant it could… I didn’t know 10 years, but I did think it would do well. Walter Bobbie, to his great credit, when he tried to bring over the New York ways there was a bit of a transition when they arrived. I think also an anxiety; ‘Are the English gonna be able to do this stuff the way we did it?’ And they had the good grace to admit that not only did we do it, but we added something.”

Producer Barry Weissler was in ebullient spirits yesterday, thriving on the electricity of the party atmosphere. Though he did not originally know that Chicago would last this long, he think its longevity lies in “universal themes; the battle between the sexes, the justice system, if you’re beautiful enough or rich enough you can get away with murder, a very cynical attitude Bob Fosse had about life in Western societies. All of that resonates to people all over the world.”

Of course, another reason for Chicago’s long West End life is its ability to recast roles with new performers. It is certainly a reason why so many could return for this birthday benefit.

“As long as they can do it I don’t think anybody minds,” said Henshall, who received a rapturous reception yesterday. “I think it’s great if they do bring a different audience that might get hooked on musical theatre. That’s great for us.” Goodman agreed: “I think what you want is each new person to really make it their own – of course, you’ve got to play the character and the situation – that they bring their own thing.”

Among the many returning performers who have brought their own touch to it over the years were Anita Louise Combe, Josefina Gabrielle, Linzi Hateley, Aoife Mulholland, Frances Ruffelle, Claire Sweeney, Anna Jane Casey, Pia Douwes, Annette McLaughlin, Caroline O’Connor, Amra-Faye Wright, Darius Danesh, Tony Hadley, Ian Kelsey, Terence Maynard, Paul Rider, George Layton, Paul Baker, Matthew Lloyd Davies, Paul Leonard, Sue Kelvin, Kelly Osbourne, Gaby Roslin, plus Bonnie Langford, Duncan James and Brenda Edwards, who all rejoin the cast full time from Monday.

Also back for yesterday’s performance was the original Chicago ensemble, which Planer was particularly excited to see: “They’re all still fit and dancing, but because of the10 years they look sort of meaty. They don’t look like a bunch of twirly… they don’t look all tits, arse and teeth, they look heavy, I don’t mean physically heavy, I mean frightening. They look really nasty, which is exciting.”

Planer, like most of the returning cast, had nothing but praise for the tale of showgirls who find fame through murder: “It’s a very cool show. It’s so lean. It’s a sort of unassailable property. There’s not one bit too many. There’s not a boring bit or a silly bit or a bit that you’ve got to sit through to get to the nice bit. It’s just all absolutely shiny and right.”

Former Billy Flynn, Kelsey, offered a slightly different view on the success of Chicago: “It’s very frustrating to be put into the show because you have to stand ‘there’ and you have to stand ‘there’. You can’t put your own physicality to it. It’s really frustrating at first, until you do it with somebody you’ve never done it with before; you turn around and Roxie’s exactly there and Velma’s exactly there and you’re exactly where they expect you to be.” Langford, who Kelsey described as “Chicago’s little Christmas present to everybody” agreed: “Everyone has gone back on the stage and just done the show as if it’s programmed in. It’s hilarious.”

The fact that so many former cast members took the time to return to celebrate the show’s decade in the West End speaks volumes for how much they must enjoy their time with the production, but for some it has had a profound effect on their careers. Roslin, known to most people as a television presenter, said “Chicago, probably, for me, changed my life. That sounds very dramatic, but it did, because it took me back to theatre where I trained, and since then I’ve done all sorts of other plays.”

Since opening in London in 1997, when it won a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production, Chicago has grossed over £120 million. Worldwide, around 17 million people have seen the show at over 16,000 performances in 24 countries. em>MA

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