Four giant Chicago Daily Tribune front pages greeted us, an inspired amalgam by set designer Cosette Pin of genuine 1919 news, with inserted headlines pertinent to our story of jazz-glitz and murder. Nor were these mere adornment; a tap dance routine was staged in silhouette from behind them.
This was one instance of director Emma Hawkins' thoughtful staging. Another was her use of the audience space as an adjunct to the stage; effectively and once explosively, but not to excess. Producer Ana Pagu has somehow managed to marshal a dedicated team of three dozen, all serving the huge task - conceived, she told me, over than 18 months - of Emma Hawkins' delivering the show on the night. With choreographer Max Penrose, she's devised an endless series of sexy, alluring routines, settled on a clear narrative voice from the disparate show elements and, not least, has coaxed authentic-sounding South Side accents from her 18 players.
The songs slid past us: 'All That Jazz' featuring Grace Albery as Velma; the rhythms of 'Cell Block Tango' ('some guys just can't hold their arsenic!'); then 'A Little Bit of Good' and, later, 'Class', for both of which the excellent Imogen Edwards-Lawrence was in abrasive, pushy form as Jail Matron Mama Morton, accompanied by accordion (a very welcome live presence).
The male chorus of six, with ever-changing outfits – the braces and bowlers were especially fetching – moved and acted with discipline yet abandon (Jake Edwards' dancing to the fore), while the women with their ostrich feathers and shimmering spangles were everywhere at once. Darcy Dixon and Flora Clark showed lots of promise for the future. Livi van Warmelo's 15-strong band, the two trumpets especially good, were prompt in cue, strong in playing and never overbearing.
As the strangely attractive narcissist Roxie, Jess Bradley cleverly found more than a hint of pathos in the rôle. Her increasing confidence on stage found full expression in her extended solo 'Roxie', and her use of the space and linking with the rest of the cast were first-class. Joe Winter was smarmily plausible as celebrity lawyer Flynn, delivering with dodgy aplomb the bouncing melody of 'Razzle Dazzle'. Priya Radhakrishnan's ever-beaming Mary Sunshine sang her soprano 'A Little Bit of Good' with pizzazz, and Patrick Cole found some latent energy and dignity in the tricky part of 'Mr Cellophane'.
In the joint lead, Grace Albery, who impressed me last year in Nice Guy, as the feisty, attention-revelling Velma was nothing short of sensational. Her strong singing voice, subtle acting in what is quite a broad rôle, her agile movement and dancing, variation of voice, timing of the lyrics and her unshowy command of the stage... individual performance in student musical theatre comes no better than this.
I keep a slim file of memorabilia of a dozen or so student shows from what seems like the hundreds I've seen - the crème de la crème. This Chicago's programme has already found its way into it.