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20th April 2022

The Only Way is Chicago: the controversial casting of Gemma Collins

Whilst Chicago has long been known for its stunt casting, Gemma Collins’ casting has attracted considerable controversy and criticism
The Only Way is Chicago: the controversial casting of Gemma Collins
Photo: Matt Crockett.

The current UK and Ireland tour of the hit musical Chicago has quite the cast. Faye Brookes (Coronation Street, Dancing On Ice) plays the main character Roxie Hart. Darren Day played the male lead, Billy Flynn, last year, the character currently being played by tenor Russell Watson (I’m A Celeb), who leaves the tour in early May. Lee Mead (Any Dream Will Do, Casualty, Holby City) is set to take on the role for most of the remaining dates. Oh, and let’s not forget Divina De Campo (RuPaul’s Drag Race), who played Mary Sunshine last year.

It’s the role of Matron “Mama” Morton, however, that has had the most interesting casting. Sheila Ferguson (former lead singer of The Three Degrees) has been in the role since early February, when the show played in Liverpool, and is staying in the role until the end of May, when the show hits Manchester. Singer Sinitta, who played the role last year, is rejoining the tour for a few of the remaining dates.

Stepping into the role for most of the summer, however, is reality television star Gemma Collins.

Collins, who began her reality TV career on The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE), has gone on to star in I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, Celebrity Big Brother, Celebs Go Dating, and Dancing on Ice.

Gemma Collins
Photo: Matt Crockett.

Whilst Chicago has long been known not only for star casting but also stunt casting – heck, Pamela Anderson (Baywatch) is set to play Roxie on Broadway – Collins’ casting has attracted considerable controversy and criticism from many in the theatre community. Some see it as a slap in the face to those who have trained and worked so hard only to be pushed aside in favour of somebody with no musical theatre training – especially after how hard the arts (and artists themselves) has been hit since the pandemic.

The roles of Mama, Roxie and Billy are often played by celebrities, though many of them are singers and actors – even if they’ve never done musical theatre before. Collins, meanwhile, is famous for being famous (and funny – oh, so funny).

Photo: Chicago.

However, she’s got a pair of chops on her, as seen when she sang ‘Big Spender’ – the signature song from fellow Fosse musical Sweet Charity – on All Together Now. Her rendition of This is Me from The Greatest Showman, however, was not quite as show-stopping – but this was probably down to nerves, what with her being in the dreaded sing-off.

That said, musical theatre does not allow for nerves. Does the GC have what it takes to pull this off? Is this stunt casting or just plain selling out? I guess only time will tell…

Chicago is touring the UK until July. Russell Watson leaves the tour just before it arrives to Manchester Opera House (23rd to 28th May) – which will be Sheila Ferguson’s final stop. Gemma Collins takes over the role on the 31st, seeing the tour through Sunderland, Cardiff, Blackpool, Sheffield, Norwich and Oxford – the last stop of the tour. Sinitta, meanwhile, is playing the role in Belfast and Plymouth (June) and Llandudno (July). If you’re keen to see a certain performer, be sure to check the casting beforehand so to avoid disappointment (granted, for some, the cast reveal might, itself, lead to disappointment).

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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