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'Chicago's' breathtaking performances could start revival of movie musicals

Gannett News service

Broadway's long-popular hit, Chicago, is finally on the screen in a sassy, entertaining rendition that breathes new life into the nearly extinct Hollywood musical.  


**** (excellent)

RATED: PG-13 (for violence, profanity and adult themes)

STARRING: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. Directed by Rob Marshall. Miramax, 108 minutes.

OPENING FRIDAY: Hoyts Cinemas, Binghamton.

And its surprising cast of Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere prove to be a formidable, high-stepping, robust-singing trio of stars.

They're characters caught up in the high-profile murder trials, vaudeville competition and Depression era razzle-dazzle of 1920s Chicago.

As directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, Chicago is based on the Broadway show mounted by composer/lyricists John Kander and Fred Ebb and choreographer Bob Fosse in 1975 -- and then revived as an even bigger hit in the 1990s.

The musical was inspired, in turn, by a nonmusical play of the 1920s, which was also filmed in 1927 and 1942.

The story survives not only because of its wit and music, but also because its cynical confluence of murder trials and show-biz fame seems increasingly relevant.

Zellweger is Roxie Hart, an ambitious singer-dancer who is charged with murder, but parlays her tabloid publicity into show-biz stardom.

She is looking to unseat the popular star of the day, sexy singer-dancer Velma Kelly -- who's not only a star, but has legal problems of her own.

They share the equally ambitious, very dapper and oh-so-cynical lawyer Billy Flynn. As he tells Roxie, "It's all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials -- the whole world -- it's all show business."

That's also the secret of Rob Marshall's screen adaptation. The musical has defied a movie rendition for years because of the challenges of blending the music hall numbers with the crime scene, jail cell and courtroom realities. Marshall's solution is to blend Roxie's interior world -- her dreams, ambitions and fantasies -- into the songs and dances at the nightclub.

And to help guide viewers through the process, Marshall uses stage announcements by the club's handsome, well-dressed band leader, played by Taye Diggs.

He not only announces musical numbers -- but also the events in the lives of the central trio.

Although we might not normally think of Zellweger or Zeta-Jones as musical talents, both are sensational. Zellweger projects just the right mix of girl-next-door charm and deadly conniving, along with a steamy stage presence that offers a faint echo of Marilyn Monroe.

Zeta-Jones offers a darker but equally steamy presence as Velma, who's determined to defend her turf as the town's resident musical star.

Gere, meanwhile, oozes the charm and confidence of the high-priced lawyer, and even sings and dances (briefly) with surprising ease. (Lest we forget, a young Gere played Danny Zuko in the musical Grease in London in 1973.) Marshall does a fine job staging the show's big numbers -- the opening All That Jazz, the show-stopping Cell Block Tango, and the Wow closer, Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag.

But equally effective are numbers by the film's two most effective supporting players, John C. Reilly as Roxie's cuckolded husband, who sings the sadly pathetic Mr. Cellophane, and Queen Latifah, who offers the film's biggest surprise as the prison matron. Her active fantasy life includes the robust When You're Good to Mama.

Unfortunately, Marshall isn't always as confident as he should be of his considerable screen talent or his staging -- his camera work and editing is often too busy. He needs to follow the old adage of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire: Let the dancers dance and the camera watch.

But that's a tolerable flaw in this welcome return of tuxedos, taps and torch songs as Chicago puts the fast-stepping, fast-talking Broadway musical back on the big screen.

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