City of big shoulders

Chicago reclaims musical with sheer showmanship

The scorching musical Chicago has themes that will never go out of date — and more's the pity. It views show business and the legal system as two sides of the same tarnished coin, and murder as the surest ticket to celebrity. Though the musical was conceived in the 1970s, the advent of Court TV proves that there's a new "trial of the century" every few years.

We enter the film by following Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) backstage at Chicago's Club Onyx. We see her hide a handgun, but never glimpse her face until she emerges onstage and begins belting out "All That Jazz," the film's anthem of prohibition-era hedonism. Velma is typically part of a sister act but she sings solo tonight because, as we soon learn, she just left her cheating husband and her sister dead in a hotel.

While Velma wows the crowd, wannabe-starlet Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) watches her with envy. She's pinned her hopes on a thuggish sharpie (Dominic West) to use his connections to get her a job in the chorus. But when she learns she's just being strung along for sex, Roxie shoots the cad in a fit of pique. Her husband (John C. Reilly) has been too dim to catch on to her infidelities, but isn't willing to take the rap for her.

Chicago's musical numbers unfold partly as products of Roxie's imagination, partly as Greek chorus. In a holding cell at the Cook County Jail, Roxie hears the prison matron (Queen Latifah) walking down the hall, and when she bursts in, the film cuts to Latifah flouncing onto a music hall stage to sing "When You're Good To Mama," a lascivious celebration of her own corrupt ways.

A gold-digging ingenue, Roxie finds that criminal justice is a microcosm of the entertainment industry. Perpetrators are like auditioners, desperate to "work with" superlawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who's akin to a Broadway producer or Hollywood superagent. As Billy, Gere offers an encore and improvement on his mercenary-shyster role in Primal Fear. He sings his first number, "All I Care About Is Love," as an aw-shucks, humble soft-shoe — that happens to be patently insincere, since all he cares about is high retainers and hogging the limelight.

Chicago's original creators — director/choreographer Bob Fosse and the songwriting team of Fred Ebb and John Kander — have undisguised adoration for burlesque and vaudeville. A press conference starts out like a ventriloquist act, with Roxie made up like a dummy on Billy's lap. It ends, in a textbook case of spin control, with the reporters echoing Billy's version of events and the attorney literally a puppeteer pulling their strings.

In this city, if you're not a shark, you're a sucker: Reilly laments how he's so easily ignored by donning a hobo costume for the showstopper "Mr. Cellophane." Yet the shocking thing about Chicago isn't the cynicism of its worldview but the showmanship of its cast, most of whom you'd never peg as musical stars. First-time feature director Rob Marshall previously worked on well-received TV musicals of Annie and Cinderella, and he must be a silver-tongued devil, because he gets vibrant work from players you wouldn't expect. Maybe you can find stronger singers than Gere or more graceful dancers than Zellweger, but you'd uncover no one who works harder — the cast sells the hell out of the material.

Were you to assign one of the Seven Deadly Sins to each member of Chicago's ensemble, Zeta-Jones would be Lust, hands down. She stalks the sets like a tigress, carrying her songs with such panache that when she finishes you might find yourself bursting into spontaneous applause.

Some of Zeta-Jones' costumes and choreography echo Liza Minelli in Cabaret, and that's no accident, as the 1972 film had the same creative team as Chicago's stage version. Marshall's film could be a 30th anniversary present to Cabaret, sharing Bob Fosse's signature effects: white lightbulbs, dancers draped orgiastically atop each other, stockings and stripper clothes.

Cabaret was a groundbreaking musical for its time, yet by imitating it, Chicago reclaims the musical genre back from Moulin Rouge. In that film, Baz Lurhmann's hyperactive camerawork and MTV-style editing made hash out of its own staging and choreography. Marshall lets you absorb the craft of the musical, offering well-staged head-to-toe shots and letting the players move within the frame, not just zipping the camera around the players.

Chicago places the strengths of film at the service of musical theater and its virtues of lyric, voice, costume and motion — and sets the whole thing in courthouses and on death row. "Razzle-Dazzle" not only imagines a trial as a literal circus, with Gere as the sequined ringmaster, its rhymes are as flamboyant as its outfits, coming up with such pairs as "old Methuselah" with "big bamboozle-ah."

Chicago isn't anything like a subtle work and would probably begin to feel thin were it to last a minute longer. Marshall and his cast take heed to Billy Flynn's own words: "Give 'em a show with lots of flash in it / And the reaction will be passionate."