One of the musical numbers in the Kander-Ebb score for “Chicago” is “The Old Razzle-Dazzle,” in which a shyster lawyer sings and dances an explanation of his profession as an exercise in smoke and mirrors. When the show first opened on Broadway in 1975, the general consensus was that it represented the triumph of style over substance, too. The book and score, it was said, were barely passable, but director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s flamboyant style had transformed them into a slick, energetic if empty package. (What the effort took out of him was the basis for the 1979 “All That Jazz,” of course.) The successful mid-nineties revival raised the level of appreciation for the show, and this new film version, which includes almost all of the original songs (“Class” is the major exception), is clear evidence that they’re better than was first thought. But it also shows that the initial assessment of “Chicago” was pretty much correct. The show remains a superficial piece whose breathtaking exterior conceals a fairly hollow core. It’s a great deal of sizzle and very little steak. But what spectacular sizzle it is! “Chicago” may be little more than glib and shallow cynicism, but it’s got reams of style, and in Rob Marshall’s filmization it’s done up with a kinetic energy that’s almost impossible to resist.
As refashioned, rather conservatively, by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) from the book by Ebb and Fosse (which was in turn based on a 1926 play by Maurine Watkins–a court reporter who based it on an actual case–filmed first as “Chicago” in 1927 and then as the farcical “Roxie Hart” in 1942), the piece is structured, as on stage, as a combination of narrative and vaudeville show, with the musical numbers introduced by a bandleader-MC (Taye Diggs). The plot centers on Roxie (Renee Zellweger), a Prohibition-era chorus girl desperate to make it big in show business. She cheats on her hapless husband Amos (John C. Reilly) with a guy she thinks can get her a spot in a club show, but when he turns out to be a liar, she kills him. At first Amos is ready to take the fall, but when he finds out about her infidelity, he tells the cops the truth, and Roxie is hauled off to the slammer. There Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) is the reigning celebrity: she’s a vaudeville performer who offed her adulterous spouse along with her sister, who’d been her partner on stage and his in bed, and she’s represented by Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a lawyer who knows and happily employs all the tricks of the trade to get clients off. The Cook County jail warden “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah) arranges for Flynn to represent the mousy Roxie too, and before long he’s transformed her into a media sweetheart with the aid of sentimental reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski). Soon Hart has taken over the front pages, leading Velma to become distinctly envious; but before long another sensational case threatens to push Roxie out of the limelight, too, so she adds to her fifteen minutes of fame by claiming to be pregnant. The flick leads up to a big courtroom finale in which Flynn manages, despite Velma’s intervention, to outmaneuvre the prosecutor (Colm Feore) and get Roxie off. But another femme fatale (Lucy Liu) has already appeared on the scene, and the acquitted woman learns how fleeting fame is. As Velma sagely informs her, though, a duet can often succeed where a solo act won’t.
As a satirical commentary on the nature of celebrity and the similarity between the courts and the stage, “Chicago” is fairly thin stuff–in fact, the same points were made far more economically in just one segment of an earlier Broadway musical, 1962’s “Little Me,” which had a book by Neil Simon (based on the novel by Patrick Dennis, who’d written “Auntie Mame”) and was, coincidentally, choreographed by Fosse. (Just check out the song “Be a Performer.”) But musicals have never needed strong stories to work, and the verve and energy that saved the stage “Chicago” from oblivion proves effective onscreen as well. Marshall, who’s done a good deal of musical work on stage and television, emulates Fosse’s style expertly and employs the blatant theatricality to good effect. He and cinematographer Dion Beebe, however, have made some decisions that will prove controversial. With the aid of production designer John Myhre, they’ve chosen to do much of the piece in rich but dark tones with lots of reds; the effect is often so gloomy and shadowy that it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate what’s going on. The lensing and editing (by Martin Walsh), moreover, often chop up the dance routines overmuch; it’s a common problem nowadays, giving MTV-style energy to the numbers but making it impossible to see (and appreciate) them as wholes.
But to compensate Marshall has cast the picture with unlikely but winning stars. Zellweger is about as close as Hollywood can get to the waif-like Gwen Verdon, who originated the role of Roxie on Broadway, and she handles the demands of the part surprisingly well; Zeta Jones proves a capable singer and dancer and looks absolutely stunning in the old Chita Rivera role; and in the part originated by Jerry Orbach, Richard Gere finally abandons the dour seriousness of his recent work (“Unfaithful” and the like) and seems to be enjoying himself again (that smirk of a smile has never been so appropriate since “Primal Fear”). Reilly’s blandness is perfect here, and in “Mr. Cellophane” he shows he can sell a song, too, while Latifah, whose vocal prowess was never in doubt, handles her acting chores comfortably. Able support comes from Diggs, Baranski and the rest of the cast.
“Chicago” may never have been the best of shows, but in this incarnation its fizz is infectious, and it proves that old-style Broadway musicals–as opposed to bogus mongrels like “Moulin Rouge”–can still be successfully transferred to the screen pretty much intact. To paraphrase Oliver, the hero of one of the last truly great stage-to-screen musical triumphs, may we have some more?