One of the benefits of going to a small university town like St Andrews is that every now and again you get to be part of a moment, something that seems to have the whole community excited. Just So Society’s Chicago last week felt like one of those moments. The show sold out the Byre for all three nights, and as the audience filled up there was an air of anticipation that I had never felt at a St Andrews production before. Expectations were high – after all, it’s Chicago.
I am pleased to report then, that the show spent two and a half hours meeting and exceeding those expectations with hit after hit. Perhaps I am biased as a fan of the source material already, but from the second the overture began with that unmistakeable, rasping trumpet solo a grin spread across my face and pretty much stayed there until the final curtain came down. The cast and crew need hardly read this review to know how they did, the audience’s reaction said everything. I attended the show with an interesting mix of my grandparents and my flatmates. Some were Chicago aficionados, and some had never heard the music before. All of them left raving about what they had just seen.
Managing a thirty-strong cast plus an onstage band cannot have been easy, and yet somehow that was how it looked. Chicago is particularly famous for its big, elaborate numbers – songs like ‘Cell Block Tango’ and ‘Both Reached for the Gun’. The smoothness with which the complex choreography was delivered and the relentless energy of both the main cast and the ensemble was breathtaking. I particularly admired ‘Cell Block Tango’ for its ambition. The creative team never made the easy choice with the choreography, consistently trying something daring and pulling it off.
Remarkably, nobody in the main cast can be singled out as a weak spot (a welcome change from my West End Chicago experience, where Billy Flynn’s accent never quite made it across the Atlantic). Elliot Seth Faber knew exactly how to get all the laughs out of poor Amos, without ever turning him into purely an object of ridicule. Coggin Galbreath as Billy was everything Amos is not. Calm, cool, collected, the demeanour of a predator toying with his prey. Most impressive of all, Galbreath’s image of total control never wavered once, even as he delivered extraordinary vocal performances.
The centre of Chicago is of course ‘those two scintillating sinners,’ Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. From the moment Cat Kadirkamanathan walked on stage as Velma to deliver ‘All That Jazz’ it was clear we were in safe hands. Kadirkamanathan played Velma with all the biting cynicism and alluring charm that epitomises Chicago. Her voice, particularly in that opening number, dominated the theatre and as she proved by the end of the show, boy can she dance. Cat Ferguson as Roxie meanwhile, was a one of my personal highlights. Her Roxie was different to any take I had seen before as she played the part with a childlike energy that perfectly blended the character’s naivete and selfishness. Ferguson’s performance of the song ‘Roxie’ was the best I have seen, delivered with a manic glint in her eye that had the audience hanging onto every word.
As a show consciously set in a theatre and modelled after the style of 1920s vaudeville, the set design for Chicago is never particularly elaborate. However, the crew knew how to make an impression with a few bold brushstrokes. Letters spelling ‘Chicago’ hung above the stage with glittering golden lights projected on to them, reminding us that it’s all just showbusiness. The towering cages wheeled out for ‘Cell Block Tangle’ also created a striking tableau onstage.
The costume department also deserve to be highlighted. No two outfits in the chorus were the same but all had that distinctive Chicago look: all black but definitely not appropriate for a funeral. I had a particular fondness for Billy Flynn’s suit, which announced ‘sleazy lawyer’ before he even opened his mouth. The crowning moment visually however, was ‘Razzle Dazzle’ with the stage erupting in swirl of sparkling gold outfits.
The meta nature of Chicago also allows the band to be placed proudly onstage, rather than hiding them away. Chicago has one of the best scores in musical theatre, and it was a delight to be able to see the band perform it. With the dialogue between songs stripped down to a minimum, the band played almost nonstop from start to finish, giving the show an infectious energy and lodging tunes in my head for days.
The show was not perfect. The second act did not feel quite as tightly rehearsed as the first, but the odd minor slip-up hardly mattered. It would have taken a lot more to break the electric atmosphere created in the theatre. Chicago is all about pure spectacle; when a production pulls it off, it is musical theatre at its very best. The Just So Society managed all that jazz and more.