Twenty years ago, possibly the sexiest musical ever arrived in London from New York. It was one of those rare shows in which the dancing — choreography by Bob Fosse — was as distinctive as the score, by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
This was the creative team behind Cabaret, that sizzling and terrifying evocation of Weimar Germany characterised by the melodic and lyrical wit of Kander and Ebb and featuring Fosse’s sex-saturated movement.
What this team did for John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera (adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin) they did again for Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 play, set in prohibition Chicago.
When it arrived in London, Henry Goodman was the first Billy Flynn, the go-to lawyer for the city’s noticeably long list of murderesses. Goodman’s performance was described by this paper as “so smooth, you could ski down him.” And a bit like Joel Grey’s MC in Cabaret, Goodman’s performance set the bar for all the Flynns that have followed.
The latest is Cuba Gooding Jr who is still best known as the man who made Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire scream the words “show me the money” down a telephone. Gooding won an Oscar for that performance. For this one he is playing a lawyer who first wants to see the money before taking a case. The latest of these concerns one Roxie Hart who we see shoot her lover and then manipulate her meek husband Amos into stumping up Flynn’s fee. But more of her later.
Gooding’s Flynn is brimful of charisma. But when he glides onto the stage to deliver his deeply ironic opening song All I Care About (is love) the voice he emits is terribly underpowered — almost to the point where you wonder if Gooding’s vocal chords have been shrivelled by the air conditioning on the flight to London.
That said, he dances like a dream. And in the few moments when Flynn is required to glide and shimmer across the stage — moves that, unlike the rest of the cast, are intended to reflect sophistication rather than sexuality — so good is Gooding, you’re left wishing that Fosse had given the lawyer more hoofing to do.
Still, this is very much the award-winning musical that has become the longest-running American musical, so the publicity tells us.
But despite Gooding’s Flynn being the headline for its return, it is the women here who provide the best reason to see it.
Ruthie Henshall (who played Roxie opposite Henry Goodman all those years ago) is typically top drawer as prison matron and fixer Mama Morton and Josefina Gabrielle (another previous Roxie in the production’s long run) is fabulously vampish as Roxie’s fellow prison inmate Velma Kelly.
But for me, all are eclipsed by Sarah Soetaert’s peroxide blonde Roxie who is somehow an amalgamation of sex-kitten and femme-fatale.
As for Gooding, he is good, but not quite as good as Goodman.