Highlighted by songs in which women celebrate the murder of wayward men and a lawyer demonstrates the art of manipulating the media, musicals don't get much more cynical than Chicago. A ripped-from-the-headlines jazz-age play by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins turned into a 1975 musical by songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb in collaboration with Bob Fosse, Chicago enjoyed an initial run of qualified success, overshadowed by the crowd-pleasing A Chorus Line. It makes perfect sense, however, that it found a second audience on Broadway in the 1990s. It also makes sense that this tale of quicksilver celebrity, sensation-peddling media, and the way both obscure truth and justice should find a wider audience still in 2002. More a narrative revue than a play, Chicago doesn't immediately lend itself to a cinematic interpretation, and the conceptual difficulties kept it from the screen until now. But in his film debut, theater and TV vet Rob Marshall slashes through this Gordian knot by turning the songs into Walter Mitty-esque asides and never trying to play down the artificiality. Just as the 1995 stage revival looked to Fosse the choreographer for inspiration, Marshall looks to Fosse the film director, keeping the staging dark and the frills limited, and letting the rhythm of the music and the dancing drive the rhythm of the editing. Realized with flair and confidence belying the fact that—apart from the more determinedly experimental Moulin Rouge and Dancer In The Dark—this is the first high-profile musical in some years, Chicago's musical numbers could stand on their own even if the compelling story didn't sweep them along. A former chorus girl turned unhappy housewife, Renée Zellweger dreams of playing a glamorous nightclub stage, so much so that when a lover who promised her a shot at the big time turns out to be a phony, he earns a chest full of bullets and Zellweger wins a quick trip to the Cook County Jail. When the film turns to song, however, that stage and even grander locales belong to her and the fellow inhabitants of Murderer's Row, whose numbers include press darling Catherine Zeta-Jones, one half of a sister act who rid herself of both partner and husband when she found them in bed together. Jones rebuffs Zellweger's admiration, but lives to regret it when the new inmate subsequently eclipses her in fame, thanks to shameless lawyer Richard Gere and his promise to make Zellweger both famous and acquittable by turning her into the "sweetest little jazz killer to ever hit Chicago." As sentimental as a plywood casket, Chicago has satirical bite and a mean wit that somehow never obscures its characters' unlikely likability. Zellweger becomes a liar and a manipulator subsequent to her career as a murderer, but in her world, these practically qualify as survival skills. Characters use the line "This is Chicago" to explain any number of things: the fickleness of the press, the substitution of performance for politics, the intertwining of sentimentality and callousness. In Watkins' time, that line may have read more literally, and less like a general state of mind. It doesn't sound that way now.
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