Chicago‘s return to the West End was met with mixed reviews on Wednesday evening, with lead man Cuba Gooding Jr. proving extremely divisive.
The 50-year-old Boyz n the Hood actor made his debut as Billy Flynn in the show, which has returned to London after 15 years on stage from 1997, yet his singing voice was widely-panned by critics in his role as lawyer Billy Flynn.
While his charm in the role was lauded, his ‘rasping’ voice was a point of contention for many with the blanket reaction insisting he was drowned out by the orchestra in the play, which returned to the stage at London’s Phoenix Theatre.
Cuba has assumed the role played by many, including Richard Gere in the Oscar winning 2002 movie, yet he managed to put his own spin of the smooth-talking character, with London Theatre insisting he does possess ‘suave pizzazz’.
He is joined on the stage by talented co-stars Sarah Soetaert and Josefina Gabrielle, who play Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in the production, who have previously featured in former incarnations of the show and won praise from critics.
In Chicago, Flynn defends murderous women Velma and Roxie. He uses glamour and show-business as part of his defence, instructing one client that both she and her husband ‘reached for the gun’ (Cuba sings it; Sarah mimes it).
In another big number, he advises Velma and Roxie to give the judge and jury a touch of ‘Razzle Dazzle’, to blind them from the truth.
Although he plays a convincing character, critics were less convinced with Michael Billington for The Guardian, writing: I’m all for reviving old musicals, but this one has not been imaginatively rethought… As the self-seeking lawyer, Billy Flynn, Gooding Jr displays too much surface charm and sings modestly but hoofs energetically.’
Aside from Cuba’s singing, industry site The Stage hit out at the lack of diversity in the cast and the fact that the Hollywood star was the only person of colour.
Tim Bano wrote: ‘Besides Gooding, the cast is inexcusably white without even being able to make the usual piss-poor argument about ‘historical accuracy’ considering how diverse 1920s Chicago was’.
The review from the Metro however lavished praise upon the star and the new production – although his voice is again a point of contention.
The piece read: ‘The default expression more mischievous than malign. He’s good, although he is a much better mover than he is a singer. His Flynn has stacks of charm but the 50-year-old gets fewer opportunities than he might like to try his hand at following Bob Fosse’s incomparable choreography.
Prior to his turn on the show, Cuba, who recently turned 50, joked that he has been doing karaoke to help get his voice in shape.
He told The Daily Mail that his initial reaction when he was offered the role was: ‘Are you kidding?!’ I literally lost my mind . . . and then I said “Yes!” This is the West End. Shakespeare and all that,’ he said.
‘I have had this interesting love affair with London and England, though I don’t know how London feels about me. So, I’m getting ready. I have a vocal coach, Eric Vetro.
‘I’ve always had a strong voice but no control, so Eric has taught me how to breathe properly. My voice goes a bit hoarse, but he and I know the work we have to accomplish.’
Gooding appeared on Broadway in Trip To Bountiful, but has not done much stage work since the early days of his career, when he did amateur theatre.
He observed that Chicago, a musical about women who have been abused by the men in their lives, speaks to the #MeToo movement, which he supports because ‘it means we’re having a conversation’.
‘There’s a certain apprehension,’ he added, ‘because you wonder whether a friend of yours will become implicated in some way.
‘And it makes you think about your own behaviour. What was celebrated yesterday is not tolerated today.’
Cuba gave one of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches ever after winning an award for his role in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire, with his character’s refrain, ‘Show me the money!’, becoming part of popular culture.
SOURCE: Daily Mail – Ciara Farmer, Eve Buckland