All that jazz: Oldham Coliseum revisits Chicago

Kevin Bourke

With new musical direction and a darker satirical edge, the theatre’s latest production shows the hit jazz musical in a new light.

We’re all familiar with Chicago, the tale of murder, celebrity and jazz made famous by Broadway and the 2002 film starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but how many of us have considered its vaudevillian roots? Oldham Coliseum embraces the musical’s Prohibition-era setting and darker comic twists as it stages the first new production of Chicago since 1997. “The big thing that I really wanted to do was reclaim it from more recent productions,” says director Kevin Shaw. “They took out all the period detail out of it, as well as quite a lot of the satire. When it was written in 1975, Kander and Ebb and Bob Fosse deliberately used the form of a vaudeville show to tell the story of these two murderesses.” The teasing chanteuse Roxie Hart and fame-hungry Velma Kelly are played by Helen Power and Marianne Benedict respectively, whose powerful performances magnify the media furore of 1920s Chicago.

Chicago could almost have been written with the Coliseum stage in mind”

Established in 1885 at the height of the musical variety show craze from which Chicago takes its inspiration, the Coliseum is a fitting home for this new production. “Chicago could almost have been written with the Coliseum stage in mind,” chuckles Shaw, who worked to claim the rights to the musical after it closed on the West End last year. “It is absolutely typical of one that would have welcomed a performing troupe of just the kind that features in Chicago. We’ve got the theatre here where we’re using that ambience.”

As well as an eighteen-strong ensemble including actor-musicians and dancers, viewers themselves become part of the act and are cast as a “vaudevillian audience, watching a vaudevillian show.” Musical director John Morton’s utilises the cast’s flexibility and plays on Chicago’s twenties setting. “A lot of the bass lines are being played on a tuba rather than a bass,” explains Shaw. “That brings a bit of twist to it and makes it different from what people might be used to.” With a darker comic elements and a revitalised cast, the Coliseum’s musical direction isn’t the only unexpected twist in this brave new Chicago.

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