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Friday, January 24, 2003

Sparkling 'Chicago' a must-see blockbuster

Special to The Daily Journal

After nearly two decades in pre-production, the Broadway musical hit "Chicago" finally made its way to the big screen without losing any of its jazz.

The concept of converting the musical into a film was first realized in the early 1980s by Bob Fosse.

Many directors and actors had been cast for the film, including everyone from Madonna to Goldie Hawn. In the end, the roles went to Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah.

The story is based on a real-life jazz-age murder trial that inspired a non-musical play and two movies (one starring Ginger Rogers) before "Cabaret's" Kander and Ebb turned it into a musical. Fosse's original Broadway version of "Chicago" was not a smash success in 1975. It became a hit with choreography by Fosse's companion Ann Reinking in 1993.

Set in the roaring '20s, the story of "Chicago" is about chorus girl Roxie Hart (Zellweger), turned unhappy wife who has gone from sleeping around ("they buy you dinner") to fooling around ("they don't"). Hart has an affair with a furniture salesman who promises to introduce her to a guy who works in a nightclub. She wants to be a star.

But when the guy dumps Hart and tells her he never knew anyone at the nightclub, she shoots him.

Landing in prison, she meets Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), another chorus girl and murderess enjoying media attention and legal manipulation, thanks to her attorney, Billy Flynn (Gere).

Soon enough, however, Flynn takes Hart's case, and with a little bit of razzle-dazzle, Kelly finds herself old news as Hart becomes the most famous murderess in town, on her way to getting out of jail -- and becoming a star.

Zellweger is in perfect form in both senses of the word -- that "Bridget Jones" weight gain is gone and one of her best scenes is playing the role of a ventriloquist's doll, where she is completely flawless sitting on the lap of Gere.

Zeta-Jones, with a Lulu haircut and legs made for sparkly tights, is mesmerizingly beautiful and immediately captures the audience with her breathless rendition of "All That Jazz."

Gere handles the musical numbers well, especially in a big tap dancing scene, while Latifah shows a lot of snap and verve as a prison warden. There's one scene in particular that showcases a fabulous voice, that if used properly, could make her the next Billie Holiday.

But none are a match for the real stars of the film -- the chorus dancers who are their best in "The Cell Block Tango" -- a scene that redefines sexual energy. "Chicago" opens nationwide today. Two special showings are planned at the Cumberland Mall's Regal Cinemas this weekend.

Vargas' grade: A+

Alfonso Vargas is a member of The Daily Journal's Gen X/Y panel. Send e-mail to him care of djliving@thedailyjournal.com.