The Theatreguide.London Review
Phoenix Theatre 2018
A proven audience-pleaser returns after a few years' absence and, although a bit shopworn around the edges, should should succeed in pleasing audiences once again.
A bit of ancient history. The Kander-Ebb musical, based on a 1920s play inspired by real events, opened on Broadway in 1975 starring Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach and the direction and choreography of Bob Fosse (and isn't that a dream combination?). It was a hit in New York and London and subsequent revivals.
In 1996 a stripped-down semi-staged (i.e.,songs and dances but no sets and little dialogue) version was scheduled for a brief Off-Broadway run but transferred to Broadway and London, running for almost two decades in both places.
It is that version, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Ann Reinking 'in the style of Bob Fosse', that is here recreated.
The plot follows, with ironic amusement and even admiration, the stories of two showgirls who separately commit murders and are then defended successfully by an amoral lawyer who uses their celebrity status to generate and manipulate public sympathy.
Kander and Ebb could write lovely ballads and Irving Berlin-style anthems, but they were at their best when allowed to be a little cynical (think Cabaret), and songs like All That Jazz, Nowadays, Me And My Baby (sung about a faked pregnancy) and that ultimate anthem of cynicism Razzle Dazzle are a total delight for everyone with even a bit of nastiness in their souls.
One reason the 1996 version has been so successful is that it is ultimately actor-proof, the real star and driving force being the dancing chorus and the sexy angular Fosse style.
This new production is now two steps removed from the original, Gary Chryst recreating Ann Reinking's recreation of Fosse's choreography, and things are not always as breath-catchingly brilliant as they are at their best.
Still, all the signature Fosse moves are there – the angular poses, the supple shoulderblades, the jaunty tip of the hat, the jazz hands – along with a greater sense than I've had before of borrowing from other Fosse dances, notably the undulating arms from Sweet Charity's Rich Man's Frug.
This revival is being marketed entirely on the name and image of Cuba Gooding Jr as the lawyer (and Gooding himself almost entirely on memories of one 20-year-old film), even though he'll only be in the show for less than three months.
He turns out to be the weakest link in the production. He was hoarse and straining to sing on Opening Night, but even without that handicap he brings too little to the show. Gooding appears to have too much invested in being loved by the audience to even hint at the character's nastiness or hard edge.
As Roxie Hart, Sarah Soetaert seems sometimes to be channeling Gwen Verdon, and I mean that as the highest praise. She perfectly captures the character's gamin quality, making the most of the dance moves Fosse built on Verdon, and she uses her very expressive face to great comic effect, especially in the ventriloquist's dummy number We Both Reached For The Gun.
Josefina Gabrielle as fellow murderess Velma is by far the best singer and dancer of the three, setting the tone from the start with a sizzling All That Jazz and never letting up. If she hasn't quite found a character for Velma, that may yet develop and, frankly, isn't much of a loss in this particular show.
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