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Who says Hollywood can't do Broadway?
Tinseltown's biggest names prove they can sing and dance as well as act in Chicago
Thursday January 23, 2003
PETER HOWELL
TORONTO STAR


Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Velma Kelly in Chicago.

Rene Zellweger as Roxie Hart in Chicago.

Richard Gere sings and dances as lawyer Billy Flynn, pictured in a courtroom scene with co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Velma Kelly.
Big, bright, brassy and almost dangerous to know, Chicago does to skeptics what Al Capone did to stool pigeons.

The odds weren't good that anyone could take the 1975 "musical vaudeville" by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb and translate it to the screen. There's a dismal track record for such projects -- A Chorus Line, anyone?

The dice were further loaded by the decision to hire actors rather than singers and dancers for the big production numbers.

But it's time to stow the machine guns away, and to just sit back and enjoy. This version of Chicago is no St. Valentine's Day massacre; it's a post-Christmas treat. It's easily the best movie adaptation of a Broadway hit since Cabaret way back in '72, although the competition has admittedly not been all that strong.

It makes a great argument that when you're casting for a movie musical, look to Hollywood rather than Broadway. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger wouldn't have topped most lists of prospective players to don the bustiers and high heels of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, vaudeville stars of 1929 Chicago with gams of gold and hearts of ice.

Nor would the cerebral Richard Gere have been the punters' pick for Billy Flynn, the headline-chasing lawyer who knows how to talk as fast as he tap dances. He doesn't even show up until 40 minutes into the movie, singing the heavily ironic tune All I Care About.

But the casting now seems downright inspired. Zeta-Jones, Zellweger and Gere really go for the gusto, taking those durable Kander and Ebb tunes downtown to the place where "the gin is cold but the piano's hot." All three prove that they have the voices and legs to dazzle an audience.

Gere even manages to look good in a number that requires him to perform in boxer shorts and a duffer's cap. And the two Z girls, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger, get an "A" for achievement, not just effort.

Tony-winning stager Rob Marshall directs and choreographs, setting the hoofers to moves that combine Fosse's sensuality with the latter-day verve of Baz Luhrmann.

It almost doesn't bear considering to think of what would have ensued had Marshall hired, say, Madonna or Mariah Carey for this.

What you might have gained on the musical side, you'd surely lose in the drama department, because Chicago is anything but frothy entertainment.

Bullets fly along with the bon mots and the story -- adapted for the screen by Bill Condon (an Oscar winner for Gods And Monsters) -- takes no prisoners in equating fame with infamy and ambition with murder. It's as current an idea in the post-O.J. Simpson world as it was in its original Jazz Age stage incarnation of 1926.

"This is Chicago," Gere's Flynn reminds us. "You can't beat fresh blood on the walls."

We first see Zeta-Jones' Velma as she's wiping the blood off her hands from a double homicide. She's dressed to kill in vampy black attire, and slaying the audience is all that's on her mind as she mounts the stage to belt out All That Jazz (the tune, incidentally, that titled and fuelled the late Fosse's 1979 movie hit).

Velma was originally part of a sister act, but her sister made the mistake of acting up with Velma's husband.

Zellweger's Roxie watches Velma with envy from the audience.

Roxie's a showgirl wannabe whose idea of climbing to the top begins with climbing into the sack with a sleazy producer (Dominic West).

When Roxie tells him it's time for him to start putting out and giving her a career, he dismisses her as "a two-bit talent with skinny legs."

He didn't bet on Roxie also being a crack shot at point-blank range, and he goes down in a hail of bullets. Roxie and Velma both end up on death row, under the watchful eye of prison warden Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), who has more connections than a cathouse switchboard.

While the inmates perform the Cell Block Tango (one of the show's stand-out numbers), Mama arranges for Roxie and Velma to both have legal representation by Billy Flynn, who brags about never having lost a case -- as long as his clients pay him $5,000 up front.

"I don't like to blow my own horn, but if Jesus Christ lived in Chicago today, and he came to me with $5,000, things would have turned out differently," Flynn says.

He is particularly drawn to Roxie's plight, and concocts a tale of her having been reared in small towns and convents, only to be led astray by Chicago's fast pace and sinful jazz -- which is not so bad a way to go astray, you'd have to admit.

Roxie is "the sweetest little thing ever to be accused of murder in Chicago," Flynn says, and the press eats it up -- even though the "sweet thing" has both a dead lover and a cuckolded husband (John C. Reilly) who she's left behind.

It's Velma's turn to look on in envy as Roxie gets all the attention and the upstart's show career starts to rise, while her own starts to fall.

Condon's screenwriting coup is to make the musical numbers all part of Roxie's vivid imagination, thus removing the requirement that they make literal sense.

This device sometimes gives the tale a fractured feel, the movie's only serious flaw, but we get to enjoy such fantasies as a ventriloquism scene where Zellweger plays Charlie McCarthy to Gere's Edgar Bergen, planning their media spin to the boisterous strains of We Both Reached For The Gun.

Gere also grabs eyeballs with a fast-tapping courtroom scene that could make you wish that all courtroom dramas were penned by Kander and Ebb.

Stage purists may lament the excising of Mama's hot tune Class, one of the highlights of the stage original, but they have no reason to fill this Chicago with lead.

Like the Windy City itself, this is a production that doesn't settle for second-class status, and it doesn't have to.

MOVIE

Title: Chicago

Director: Rob Marshall

Stars: Rene Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah

Rating: AA

Opens: Tomorrow

Theatre: Silver City, Galaxy Cambridge, Galaxy Waterloo




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