Baz Luhrmann “reinvented” the movie musical with his deliriously over-the-top Moulin Rouge. Now, director-choreographer Rob Marshall’s Chicago takes the genre right back to its roots, proving that a savvy story, a sizzling score and a series of scorching musical numbers can send shivers down the spines of viewers even without flashy cinematic gimmickry.
Just how fantastic is this adaptation of Bob Fosse’s wicked satire of celebrity worship? I could use all kinds of inspiring adjectives – sexy, shimmering, stunning – and I probably will (they all apply), but consider this: at an advance screening, every production number was met with thunderous applause, cheers and whistles by the 1,400 industry members in attendance; not a typical reaction from jaded New York critics known more for their cynicism than for displays of unbridled enthusiasm.
Every self-respecting queen knows the plot: after murdering her lover, Roxy (Renee Zellweger), a wannabe vaudeville star, ends up on death row only to realize that prison – and the publicity that goes with it – could be her ticket to fame. Under the tutelage of Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) and her sleazy lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Roxy cooks up a scheme to capitalize on her newfound popularity, which doesn’t sit well with Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the cellblock’s reigning celebrity murderess.
All the advantages of the medium have been utilized to expand the story, but never at the cost of the show’s bare-boned rawness. The musical numbers, which are absolutely electrifying, take place in Roxy’s imagination, making for a breathtaking combination of stark realism and vivid theatricality. The ladies deliver, and then some, especially Zeta-Jones, who attacks her role with a maniacal ferocity. But the undisputed standout is Gere, clearly relishing his role as the smarmy, publicity-hungry Flynn. Taking a cue from his character, he pours on the old razzle-dazzle, showering viewers with innumerable sequins, many of which land, wonderfully, directly in the eyes.