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Chicago: All that's great in movie musicals

By Bruce Westbrook
Houston Chronicle
Posted December 27 2002



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PHOTOS


MOVIE INFO

Chicago
With: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated PG 13: Sexual content, violence, mature themes


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In the 30 years since Cabaret redefined movie musicals, the genre has languished, ignored by studios and audiences alike.

Perhaps all we needed was another Cabaret. With Chicago, this holiday season's most razzle-dazzle entertainment, we've got it.

If movie musicals are staging a comeback, last year's song-stealing Moulin Rouge was just the start. With its strong original songs and Broadway showmanship, Chicago has the theatrical chops a true renaissance requires.

Credit should be sprayed as widely as the rat-a-tat gunfire of its done-wrong dames, who shoot their men and use media-circus notoriety to spark not just acquittal but showbiz ascension.

When it bowed on Broadway in 1975, Chicago -- with its fame games at any price -- was a dark evocation of post-Watergate cynicism. Today, it's a timely spin on the shamelessness of a Jerry Springer world where notoriety is mistaken for celebrity and infamy for self-worth.

The casting is star-driven, but only to a point. Though Catherine Zeta-Jones as vaudeville vet Velma Kelly and Renée Zellweger as wannabe Roxie Hart lack the knock-'em-dead snap and polish of stage regulars, each is a revelation as a singer and hoofer, and both have the acting ability to carry their characters, no small feat in itself.

Richard Gere is almost as much of a slam-shut case as their attorney, smoothly undaunted Billy Flynn. He sings and tap-dances well enough and gets to show his neglected comic twinkle.

But the chief credit, beyond composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, goes to screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and first-time film director Rob Marshall, a musical-theater pro whose vision and passion got the ball rolling. From its jaunty score and smoky-nightclub motifs to its robust and vibrant dancing, their Chicago evokes Cabaret while also carving its own jazz-age identity.

The shows also share a bloodline with late, great director-choreographer Bob Fosse. But for Marshall, Fosse's carnal undulations are just a touchstone for wildly inventive set pieces rippling with imagination -- and not a single special effect.

As much as any computer-animated spectacle, Chicago paints the screen with creative detail -- all live and on camera. Smart, crafty and superbly executed, it flies by so fast you'll want to watch it again as soon as the credits crawl.

Marshall's key move was setting Chicago's vaudeville-style numbers separately from dialogue scenes. Songs don't burst from conversation but play independently as elaborate projections of Roxie's stage-obsessed fantasies.

There's no denying All That Jazz is the big showstopper, and Zeta-Jones delivers it with whiplash conviction in a brash, lusty production number.

As for Zellweger, you name it, she nails it, both as budding vamp and lovable underdog. She's oddly innocent despite plugging her boyfriend.

And the warmly earthy Queen Latifah, a shrewd casting choice for the prison matron, shines on When You're Good to Mama.

With few respites, Marshall keeps the energy humming, and his edits are crisp and purposeful.

This, then, is the show for those who grew up loving movie musicals in which going over a rainbow took only the leap of faith that a heartfelt song could make happen.

It still can today, thanks to artists who clearly respect that tradition while giving it new life and fresh hope.

For all its shysters, shams and sheer razzle-dazzle, Chicago, at long last, is the real thing.

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel



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