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Dancing away with Zeta's role

Nov 8 2004

Hannah Jones, Western Mail


A WELSH star made it infamous in a film, but its razzle dazzle allure still packs a punch with theatregoers.

Chicago has been running in the West End with a revolving cast of high-profile performers for the past eight years.

So the show appears to be as popular as ever, not least because of the film version which gave Catherine Zeta-Jones her first Oscar.

With its mix of murder, greed, violence, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery, it's a musical that seems to have it all - cracking songs, a cracking cast, and a cracking story.

The show's touring version stars Rachel Stanley, the actress who steps into Zeta-Jones's shoes playing the villainous Velma Kelly.

But although the strong women in Chicago might appear bad, Rachel says they go much deeper than that.

"They are hard women because most of them have had hard lives," she says.

"Velma kills her sister and husband because she finds them in bed together. She's angry, not a cold-blooded murderer, and that's why I wouldn't call her or any of the others evil."

Rachel believes the show's success is partly due to its parallels to the modern world.

"Chicago is about women who become celebrities in virtue of committing crimes.

"Roxie Hart is an actress dreaming of being famous before she kills her lover. That proves to be her ticket to tabloid stardom.

"The OJ Simpson case is a perfect example.

"Everyone knows who he is because he was in the media all the time.

"Velma is used to being queen bee, the media's favourite celebrity.

"But when Roxie Hart comes along, she threatens Velma's place in the spotlight.

"Naturally that doesn't go down too well with Velma and the gloves are off in the fight to stay on top.

"Both want to attract more media attention that the other. It's a dark play with serious undertones yet it's very funny."

Luckily, Rachel says she can't see any similarities between her and the character she plays.

"I'm actually nothing like her, but I think it's exciting to get to play someone that I'm not," she said.

"I just have to build the character around other things than personal recognition, like the other characters in the play and people I know."

Rachel joined the London production of Chicago in 1998 and since then she has been committed to the act, doing a number of other projects on the side.

She started out as Annie and has played Roxie Hart before ending up as Velma Kelly.

"In many ways I feel there's more of a story to tell with Roxie and a part of me misses that.

"But then again I love playing Velma because she has some fantastic dance numbers throughout the musical, especially Velma's entrance to All That Jazz. I never get tired of doing that."

So how does she feel coming to Wales and performing a part made famous by its most celebrated actress?

"You know, I loved the film the first time I saw it," she said.

"I think they've managed to stay true to the original, but it does lack the atmosphere and liveliness of the theatre performance.

"Catherine Zeta-Jones was brilliant as Velma, but it's so much easier to portray a character on screen than on stage. "On stage you only get one chance and no help from camera angles and editing."

Rachel will be travelling up and down the UK for a year with the touring production of Chicago.

She says it's "tiring" but "extremely satisfying" to know that the audience is having a good time.

"We travel during the day and perform in the night so there's not much time to relax.

"But it's all good fun. It's so nice to know that I can make people enjoy themselves.

"Even though the play has been on Broadway for ages, I'm still surprised how popular it is. "Everywhere we've been so far we've had a lovely reception and people have sometimes become really involved - tapping their feet and singing along," says Rachel.

And, despite the fact that you know you-know-who won't be doing her version of Velma, there's no reason to think Wales will be an exception.

'Chicago' opens at the New Theatre in Cardiff today and runs until November 20. The box office number is 029 2087 8889.


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