Those of you who have followed the Timeline over the years will know that I've generally posted reports of those of Lee's concerts and shows I've been lucky enough to see - less so in recent years, however. A form of writer's block, if you will, which I've endeavoured to overcome to share my thoughts on Lee's first week playing the suave, charismatic and wholly mercenary lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the UK tour of Chicago.
This is not a review as such - there are others who do that far better than I (you can read a selection here, which I'll add to during the run) - rather it's a fan's first impressions of Lee's latest role, a role unlike any we've seen him play before... lying, manipulative, in charge. Irresistible!
Photo credit to Matt Crockett for these production shots (click images for larger versions).
We first heard Lee sing All I Care About, Billy's opening number in the show, back in November 2020 at Crazy Coqs... his first gig after a year of dark theatres, a cancelled tour and just hours before London plunged into lockdown once more. It had quite an impact on me... "On this incredibly special night at Crazy Coqs, it was All I Care About from Chicago that I think I'll remember in the years to come. The first song after so long in the darkness. The bow tie, the swagger, the knowing humour, oh and the vocal... the man was back. On stage. Where he belongs. And the grin on my face was a mile wide."
Eighteen months later, from "bow tie" onwards, I might have written the same, word for word, after watching Lee's first night in the role.
In the interim, we'd learned that he'd auditioned for and been offered the role, but his panto commitments had prevented him accepting the full run. We'd heard him sing that song a few more times (it's even captured for posterity on his brilliant Live at the Palladium CD and DVD, recorded in June 2021). We'd wished things might have been different because surely, Lee was perfect for this role! Thankfully, we do now get the chance to see for ourselves...
And we weren't wrong. A first night always brings nerves - and that's my own I'm talking about, never mind how Lee himself feels - but from the moment he first appeared, voicing the now familiar line "Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?", I breathed easy... he wore Flynn's persona like a second skin.
The tilt of his head, the shot of a cuff, the hitch of an eyebrow, the stance, the smirk ... as I tweeted on the night, Lee was Billy Flynn personified. Seeing All I Care About 'fully staged' was a delight (surely those feathers tickle?!), but it's also the Billy Flynn number I recall best, it having featured in many a West End Live performance. So it was the slick timing, the cynical comedy and the forgotten nature of Flynn's role in We Both Reached for the Gun that really got my juices flowing. Oh, I was enjoying this show... already thinking at the interval what other dates I could get to!
I must also pay homage to the rest of the cast, as integral to my enjoyment and appreciation of the show as Mr Mead (OK, almost!). My one reservation about this production had been the prospect of Gemma Collins as Mama Morton ... whether that view was justified, I'll never know, but I confess I was relieved, if not entirely surprised, when just a week before her (and Lee's) first show, news broke that an old knee injury had forced her to withdraw. I couldn't have been more delighted at the announcement that Brenda Edwards would step in.
On that first night in Sunderland, however, it was Delycia Belgrave on for Mama Morton, while to my shame and Billie Hardy's great credit, it was only after the show I realised I hadn't been watching Faye Brooks as Roxie Hart. Both covers were excellent in their respective roles, while Djalenga Scott was simply sublime as Velma Kelly and Jamie Baughan's lumbering, loyal and easily-led Amos Hart won the audience's sympathy with a delicately balanced performance.
Arguably even more important to the overall success of the production were the ensemble, whose consistently sharp execution of Anne Reinking's Fosse-style choreography was another source of great joy, and the fabulous 10-piece band under the expert and sometimes extravagant baton of Musical Director, Andrew Hilton (who you may remember from Chitty days, along with his gorgeous cockapoo, Max). Super-talented, one and all.
But back to my main focus... the second half brought more delights as Razzle Dazzle placed more taxing choreographic demands on Lee in the form of a cane! On Tuesday, this was the one point where I felt a little caution in Lee's otherwise supremely confident portrayal ... no more, I think, than the added concentration required for the co-ordination of voice, feet and hands, and already less evident only days later.
Aside from his musical numbers, I had forgotten quite how much dialogue Flynn has - when we spoke after the show, Lee talked of how hard he'd worked in preparation, learning his lines during his downtime on P&O's Iona (where he's been performing during several Norwegian Fjord cruises this year). That preparation stood him in good stead as I would never have imagined, watching him, that he'd had only three days' rehearsal time with the cast before his debut.
I was back on Saturday amid the buzz of the biggest local event in forever... for me that was clearly Lee and his cast mates playing their last two shows at the city's beautiful Empire Theatre! But apparently a certain Mr Edward Sheeran had a few people (70,000 few!) coming to a gig that evening at the Stadium of Light. Happily, the two events were to collide, when Ed called in to the Empire, posing for a few 'jazz hands' photos with cast, band and crew and watching the matinee! All I can say is he saw a cracking show... Brenda Edwards had arrived, returning to the role of Mama Morton off the back of one rehearsal, 13 years after she last played the role, and she hit the ground running!
Lee returns to P&O Iona today, while the tour heads to Belfast, but he's back on 14 June for Plymouth and the rest of the tour, calling at Cardiff, Blackpool, Sheffield, Norwich and Oxford before ending in Llandudno on 30 July. Few tickets remain for most venues - so if you haven't booked yet, don't wait too long!