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On Dec. 27, 2002, Rob Marshall’s musical Chicago debuted in theaters on its way to award season glory. The film, starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, claimed six Oscars at the 75th Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
After a seemingly endless gestation period, this cinematic adaptation of the Kander and Ebb Broadway musical hit has finally arrived and fortunately delivers the sexy razzle-dazzle that everyone, especially movie musical fans, has been hoping for. An even more accessible and substantial screen musical than last year’s Moulin Rouge (and not nearly as headache-inducing), the movie version of Chicago is a screen triumph that should ride critical kudos and award recognition to significant commercial success, though its potential could be limited by the inherent darkness of the material and less-than-likable main characters.
Chicago, as staged by Bob Fosse, was a Broadway hit upon its initial 1975 production, but it was with its 1996 revival, now the longest-running in Broadway history, that it truly entered the public consciousness. The material, of course, has been around forever; based on a 1926 play, it has already been adapted twice for the movies, albeit in nonmusical form. It tells the sordid tale of Roxie Hart (Zellweger), a struggling dancer-singer in Prohibition-era Chicago who goes on trial for the shooting death of her lover. Her rival for the public’s ever-shifting attentions is equally homicidal showgirl Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), and her lawyer is the ever-shifty, slick Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). The themes of media exploitation and the public’s embracing of glamorous criminals is, unfortunately, still all too relevant.
Kander’s and Ebb’s musical version is done in a highly theatrical — indeed, vaudevillian — style, which threatened to be highly difficult to adapt for the screen. Director Rob Marshall, making an auspicious big-screen debut, and screenwriter Bill Condon have solved the inherent structural and credibility problems much as Fosse did in his highly similar film adaptation of another Kander and Ebb classic, Cabaret. In that film, Fosse removed the standard songs from the show and instead presented all of the musical numbers as taking place in the Kit Kat Club; here, the idea is that a realistic depiction of Roxie’s plight is juxtaposed with musical numbers that are figments of her imagination, many of them introduced by a “bandleader” (Taye Diggs), all too reminiscent of Joel Grey’s menacing emcee.
The concept is quite effective, making the material palatable even to those easily turned off by standard musicals. Helping matters greatly is the brilliantly jazzy and brassy musical score, featuring one standout number after another. There was great concern about the unlikely casting choices, but they have paid off; the lead performers, who have clearly worked very, very hard, handle both their dramatic and musical chores with aplomb. Zellweger, who certainly doesn’t spring to mind as a musical diva, is a terrific Roxie, well conveying the sordid aspects of her cheating, murdering character even while maintaining her inherent appeal. And, while she won’t erase anyone’s stage memories of Gwen Verdon, or Ann Reinking in the revival, she proves more than capable in the song-and-dance department. Speaking of that, while it’s deeply unfortunate that Bebe Neuwirth wasn’t given the opportunity to repeat her stage triumph, Zeta-Jones is a sexy, funny Velma, though the character has been somewhat relegated to supporting status.
Gere, again not someone associated with musical comedy (his early stage career did include a stint as Danny Zuko in Grease), is a first-rate Billy Flynn, even if it’s hard not to imagine how glorious someone like Gene Kelly would have been in the role years ago. His still-dashing good looks and charisma, not to mention his ability to convey a smarmy quality, serve him well here, and it’s a pleasure to see him working his comedic muscles again. Queen Latifah proves inspired casting as the scheming Matron Morton, scoring big with her lavish number “When You’re Good to Mama.” It’s a shame, though, that one of her character’s best numbers, “Class,” has been cut. John C. Reilly is superbly pathetic as Roxie’s cuckolded husband, Amos, and his number “Mr. Cellophane” is one of the film’s highlights. Christine Baranski is a delight as a rapacious reporter; Lucy Liu has an entertaining cameo as yet another female murderer; and Chita Rivera, the musical’s original Velma, has a welcome but all too brief cameo.
Marshall, a veteran stage director/choreographer who proved his cinematic skills with his television adaptations of the musicals Cinderella and Annie, does a superb job here, beautifully contrasting the gritty storyline with the hard-edged musical numbers. From the opening “All That Jazz” to the torrid “Cell Block Tango” to the finale, “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag,” the screen pulses with musical energy, and he has well realized such concepts as having the reporters being depicted as marionettes during Roxie’s news conference. If there’s one fault to be found in the direction, it’s an all too common one in this MTV era: too much cutting and too many camera angles. Too often, Marshall fails to trust the inherent value of simplicity as taught by such musical screen masters as Astaire and Kelly. Particularly egregious is Gere’s tap dance number, which is shot so choppily it resembles an outtake from Flashdance. On the other hand, Marshall’s choreography pays suitable homage to Fosse while managing to be highly effective on its own terms.
Technical credits — including John Myhre’s beautifully evocative production designs, Colleen Atwood’s perfect period costumes and Dion Beebe’s dark-tinged cinematography — are absolutely top-notch. — Frank Scheck, originally published Dec. 11, 2002.
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