Caitlin Morgan

Chicago

06/02/20

The Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

You have to hand it to Edinburgh University Footlights. This talented student company never shies away from taking on ambitious productions and few shows come with more ambition fitted as standard than Kander and Ebbs’ 1975 masterwork, Chicago. But, down go the lights and on troop the players, dressed to the nines, and supported by a full orchestra, playing to a packed and highly appreciative crowd.

This is, of course, the story of Roxie Hart (Rebecca Joyce), a young woman who ruthlessly guns down her lover when he threatens to walk out on her. The cheek of the man! She soon finds herself in the Cook County Jail, where she discovers that being a notorious killer can pay off, provided you have the right management.

Her main rival here is Velma Kelly (Lauren Robinson), currently riding high after the recent murder of her husband and sister, and being groomed for a career onstage by Matron “Mama” Morton (Niamh Higgins). She tells Roxie that, in order to get ahead, she needs to find five thousand dollars to pay for a lawyer – and lawyers don’t come any slicker than Billie Flynn (Matthew Storey). But, as Roxie and Velma struggle for supremacy, they soon realise that they’ll need every ounce of sass they possess in order to stay newsworthy.

The show gets off to a fabulous start with Robinson – the absolute standout in this show – delivering a terrific performance of All That Jazz¬†and, from there, the pace never lets up as a whole series of Kander and Ebb earworms explode onstage. Joyce gives us a memorable Roxie, making us care about her not so lovable character, while Storey has plenty of swagger as Billy Flynn. There’s a lovely sequence where Higgins wanders through the audience singing When You’re Good to Mama with absolute authority. Hats off also to Alex Andsell, who manages to milk the sympathy as Roxie’s much-put-upon husband, Amos, performing a cracking rendition of Mr Cellophane and then apologising for taking up so much of our time!

But of course, Chicago is – more than anything else – an ensemble piece and it’s in those big dance numbers that amateur productions can so often come unstuck. Not the case here, thanks to the slick choreography of Florence Hardy and that superb big band, bashing out a whole string of memorable songs. Becca Chadder handles the directorial reins with aplomb, yet the programme informs me she’s ‘never directed a musical before.’ Really? Well, she’s done a first rate job here and I’m pleased to be told that she’d like to repeat the experience.

Sadly, we’re late onto this, so you only have a couple of opportunities to catch up with it. If you can grab tickets for one of the final performances, I’d urge you to do so. Let’s face it, we could all do with a little razzle dazzle in our lives.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Producers

 

29/11/18

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to imagine the kind of outrage that must have been generated by Mel Brooks’ The Producers on it’s original release in 1967, when it’s tap-dancing Nazi stormtroopers and flamboyantly gay directors must have touched a whole bunch of raw nerves. Adapted as a musical by Brooks and Thomas Meehan in the early naughties, it’s one of those rare creatures, a brilliant film, that became an excellent musical, that became a superb musical film. The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group have some very big jackboots to fill here, but I’m happy to say that they rise to that daunting undertaking with their usual brio.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this is the tale of struggling theatre impresario, Max Bialystock (Max McLaughlin) and shy, nervy accountant Leo Bloom (Rob Merriam). The two men form an unlikely alliance when Bloom casually points out that a producer might easily take a bigger profit from a disastrous flop than from a major success, provided the account ledgers are suitably cooked. With this in mind, Bialystock sets about procuring two million dollars to fund a new musical by seducing every elderly lady in his little black book – and, once they have the budget, Bialystock and Bloom go in search of the worst show ever written, plus the worst actors to perform it. Pretty soon, they settle on a little piece promisingly entitled Springtime for Hitler

This is unashamedly a creation of its era and happily, there’s been no attempt to soften the outrageous content to suit more modern sensibilities. The cast play it exactly as written, which leads to the only false note, when Bloom insults Bialystok by calling him ‘Fatty,’ (something that worked well enough for Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, but is simply puzzling when applied to the lithe figure of McLaughlin). But that’s a minor niggle in what is, otherwise, a very satisfying production.

McLaughlin and Merriam make an appealing duo, while Georgie Rogers plays Swedish wannabe Ulla with the volume turned up to 11 and Will Peppercorn is a suitably deranged Franz Liebkind, a man who thinks nothing of wearing a German steel helmet and a swastika as leisurewear. Supporting actors make the most of their smaller roles (I particularly like Gordon Stackhouse’s turn as Carmen Ghia, a performance so archly camp that every gesture manages to evoke a belly laugh). But this musical is, of course, the very definition of an ensemble piece with twenty-two actors confidently moving around the small stage, singing and dancing up an absolute storm, even when incorporating their zimmer frames. And let’s not forget, there’s a seventeen piece band in this show, conducted by Caitlin Morgan, who deliver an assured musical accompaniment throughout.

Yes, this is a student show and of course, they don’t have the budget for fancy effects and state-of-the-art scenery, but when it comes to talent, The Producers is positively bursting with the stuff. If you like the original film, you’ll love this and you’re certain to come out, like me, with a great big smile on your face.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney