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Jack Mathews is a New York Daily News columnist.

Email: Jmathews@ edit.nydailynews.com

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All that jazz
with lots of pizzazz

On big screen, 'Chicago' is a razzle-dazzle
cinematic show-stopper

Catherine Zeta-Jones kicks up her heels in 'Chicago'
'20s-Something: Rene Zellwegger stars as a dancer-wannabe.
CHICAGO. With Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah. Directed by Rob Marshall. Running time: 108 mins. Opening Friday. Rated PG-13: Sexual content, dialogue and violence.

Editor's Note: "Chicago" opens in theaters on Friday. Due to strong interest in the film, we are reviewing it in advance.

It's generally not a good idea to begin a movie musical with a show-stopper. It tends to raise audience expectations and set them up for disappointment.

Not so with Rob Marshall's scintillating, jazz-hot adaptation of the Broadway musical - written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and choreographed and co-written by Bob Fosse. Set in the late '20s, "Chicago" made its debut in 1975 and began its long-legged revival at the Shubert in 1996.

The movie version is jump-started with a sensationally edited, crosscut montage following dancer wanna-be Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) from the theater where her vaudeville idol Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is performing "All That Jazz," to Roxie's apartment, where she has sex with a furniture salesman promising to help her career.

The number and the sex end at the same time, and with the same level of energy, emptying the air from the theater. Before you can turn and ask the person next to you if it was as good for them as it was for you, Roxie has killed this cad and sent the story hurtling forward, to events equally unexpected and exhilarating.

"Chicago," with its wafer-thin Police Gazette story line, isn't going to change anyone's life, but for sheer, audacious musical entertainment it tops last year's "Moulin Rouge," and ranks among the greatest adapted Broadway shows ever.

The original story's cynicism about crime, the media and the cult of celebrity has sharpened over time, thanks to our growing obsession with low-end melodrama and the haste with which bad news now travels. But just as you don't go to Chicago for the wind, you don't go to the musical for the story. You watch it with your antennae up and your senses exposed. You want to feel it, as much as watch it, and it touches you in every way.

The casting of the main characters, particularly of Zellweger and Richard Gere, as lawyer Billy Flynn, raised some eyebrows, but they deliver in triumphant fashion. Gere's voice has a raspy, Irish-pub quality that may scratch a few delicate CDs, but works well for his blustering shyster. And Zellweger's naturally melodic voice is something of a revelation.

Not that Bridget Jones has turned into Jessica Rabbit. Sexual, she is. Sexy, she ain't. In her big number with the darkly voluptuous, musically trained Zeta-Jones, Zellweger looks as if she's dancing on a pair of pipe cleaners.

That's if you look. With Zeta-Jones just two gams over, there's no need.

Whatever weaknesses Zellweger had after a two-month crash course on the boards, they're masked, either by our eyes' diversion to her dishy co-star or by the seamlessly smart editing of Martin Walsh.

Walsh also works wonders with Gere, especially in a scene in which he appears to be doing a nifty, tap solo, though we see it only in teasing glimpses between cuts to other action.

However the illusions were accomplished, Zellweger and Gere are fine in their musical numbers, and better than that in the dramatic scenes.

Zellweger easily converts her girl-next-door image to that of a dancing Eve Harrington, an opportunist ready to claw her way over any obstacle - Velma, mostly - that gets in her way.

The two women end up in prison together, each one accused of murder, both defended by Flynn, for whose attention they must compete. It's Roxie who shows the most moxie, and after casting herself as a victim and being made over as a Breck Girl, she's the national rage.

In adapting the musical, Marshall, a choreographer (Broadway's "Cabaret" and TV's "Annie," which he also directed), and screenwriter Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," which he also directed) have extracted the production numbers from the book and made them fantasies that play out in the theater of Roxie's imagination.

So, we're there when Roxie triumphs onstage, when the confessions of her fellow prisoners turn into smoldering condemnations of the men they killed, when a press conference becomes a marionette show with Flynn literally pulling reporters' strings, when the corrupt-but-good-hearted prison matron (Queen Latifah, like she owned the place) shares her own dreams, and when Roxie's cuckolded husband (John C. Reilly) laments being the invisible man.

At times, "Chicago" has the feel of a revue, with the major characters taking turns at their own show-stopping numbers. If it's too much of a good thing, I say, bring it on.

Originally published on December 23, 2002

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