- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

If you remain to the very end of the end credits for “Chicago,” Rob Marshall's stunning new movie version of the Bob Fosse theatrical musical, you'll find a postscript that affirms the skills of co-stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere. Yes, we're informed, all three did their own singing and dancing.

Information of this sort was never appended to musicals in their Hollywood heyday. You discovered later that certain performers were assisted by invisible parties, most often on the soundtrack.

Now that full-blown movie musicals have become a rarity, it doesn't seem particularly insulting to underline the fact that the performers were legit. Miss Zeta-Jones and Mr. Gere have some stage experience in musicals. (His dates back to a London production of “Grease” in 1975, the same year “Chicago” debuted on Broadway.)

None of the principals, though, has a musical track record with a film audience. The opportunities are few and far between.

Renee Zellweger, a novice, demonstrates that 10 weeks of rehearsal might be more than adequate if you're dedicated to the job at hand. She emerges as the film's most sensational revelation while portraying Roxie, the avid nobody who craves a show-business career in Chicago, circa 1929, and blunders into overnight celebrity by gunning down her boyfriend. Like Roxie, he's married to somebody else at the time.

Movie fans may remember Ginger Rogers in the farce “Roxie Hart” in 1942.

The filmmakers take a few liberties by envisioning a prematurely integrated Chicago, but Queen Latifah proves humorously and vocally ideal for the prison matron, Mama Morton. She helps tutor Roxie in the ways of exploiting notoriety, principally by advising her to solicit Billy Flynn, the fashionable and unscrupulous criminal attorney played by Mr. Gere.

Anyway, you feel as if you're watching a revitalized genre while admiring “Chicago.” A number of people whose susceptibilities elude me felt that way about Baz Luhrmann's “Moulin Rouge” a year ago. In my estimation, “Chicago” puts those fancies in the proper perspective by emerging as the incisive, hard-edged real deal, a production of such exhilarating sophistication and professionalism from conception to execution that it makes the immediate competition look scatterbrained and like child's play.

There has not been a movie musical this inventive or accomplished since Herbert Ross' production of Dennis Potter's “Pennies From Heaven” in 1979. It's probably no coincidence that they share thematic and stylistic affinities or that they happen to be superlative examples of the misanthropic musical comedy.

That variant is something of a contradiction in terms, especially for all those who prefer to associate the movie musical with cheerful and jubilant moods. I'm inclined to prefer the joyful noises myself but when the exceptional exception turns up, it's merely just and sensible to acknowledge the achievement.

Mr. Marshall, who has been choreographing shows for several years and directed the TV remake of “Annie” three years ago, makes his feature debut with a brilliant feat of homage. It's as if he were channeling Bob Fosse, transposing “Chicago” to the screen as vividly as the show's original director might have if he had survived long enough and still could duplicate the expertise he brought to the movie version of “Cabaret” in 1972.

“Chicago” reunited Mr. Fosse with the “Cabaret” songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. The shows are unmistakable companion pieces in terms of period evocation and sardonic lyricism.

The Sally Bowles who aspired to be a headliner in Weimar Berlin is echoed by Roxie Hart, who lusts for the limelight in Roaring '20s Chicago. The ironic interplay of cabaret numbers and plot developments in “Cabaret” is also discernible in the framing pattern of “Chicago,” which uses Roxie's overheated imagination as the trigger for almost all the production numbers.

Typically, they flare up in “real” settings but then acquire a more theatrical character on the nightclub or vaudeville stage. The convention is established so securely that one easily accepts a shift of focus to other performers. Even when they have the spotlight, Roxie's perspective is never far away.

Indeed, it re-emerges with an unforgettable comic emphasis when Miss Zeta-Jones, playing the vaudeville headliner Velma Kelly, whose status as both showgirl and murderess Roxie is trying to usurp, attempts to con her new rival into forming a double act.

The preamble sets up Miss Zeta-Jones' most energetic and impressive dance number, but the context allows Miss Zellweger as grudging bystander to deflate it as a parting jest with a pursing of bee-stung lips that form a perfectly contemptuous raspberry.

The fact that one actress looks healthier than the other and demonstrates more singing and dancing assurance works in a funny way to intensify the Velma-Roxie rivalry. Though clearly the upstart and underdog, Miss Zellweger overcompensates splendidly. Looking lean and hungry, she blends yearning and competitiveness in astonishing ways.

I've never been sold on her wistful appeal, but I think she turns a corner with this performance. The sheer physical contrast with her tubby Bridget Jones may help sell the turnaround. Miss Zellweger enters as a wistful sad sack and departs as an aggressive handful, a versatile comic actress with dynamite possibilities.

Mr. Gere gets a very witty entrance and adopts a song style that threw me until a few memories fell into place. Evidently, he finds it easier to characterize Billy while evoking Anthony Newley.

An amusing sort of suspense is built into the occasional movie musical: You're never too sure if the performers are going to be up to it. They weren't in Woody Allen's “Everyone Says I Love You” or Kenneth Branagh's “Love's Labour's Lost,” but some folks endeared themselves by making a sincere, game effort.

The “Chicago” troupe gets it right from the get-go.

It's unusual to see one dazzling number after another. “Chicago” has a high-performance consistency that's almost ridiculous. This is one of its conspicuous advantages over “Moulin Rouge,” which was always settling for slapdash choreography, gauche comedy and ragged editing.

Perhaps the most astonishing triumph among the “Chicago” highlights is the ventriloquist's number with Miss Zellweger and Christine Baranski, cast as Chicago sob sister Mary Sunshine, simulating puppets in Billy Flynn's control.

It's rivaled as a fabulous brainstorm by the moment when fantasizing Roxie seems to transform a wall of mirrors into a chorus line of escorts in evening dress. The execution is impeccable in both numbers, although they exemplify very different imaginative leaps as set pieces.

“Chicago” is as good as it's likely to get if one desires a fresh lease on life for the movie musical. There are fleeting signs of life every so often, but as a rule, they're limited to isolated numbers in nonmusicals. And then the apparent breakthrough, like “Pennies From Heaven,” inspires no follow-ups at least for 23 years or so.

Rob Marshall is at the start of a film-directing and choreographing career, so the prospects are a bit different in his case. For the moment, it will be sufficient to savor this auspicious debut.


****

TITLE: “Chicago”

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained cynical tone and frequent sexual candor; occasional violence)

CREDITS: Directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay by Bill Condon, based on the book of the original Broadway show and the play “The Brave Little Woman” by Maurine Watkins and the movie “Roxie Hart.” Cinematography by Dion Beebe. Production design by John Myhre. Costume design by Colleen Atwood. Songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Musical supervision by Maureen Crowe.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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