I keep wondering what Bob Fosse would have thought about the new movie version of Chicago. Fosse, who died of a heart attack in 1987, was the George Balanchine of bump and grind; he could squeeze every ounce of sexual juice out of a rotated pelvis. He was also ferociously cynical, spotting the phony in every crowd, not to mention the one in the mirror. All That Jazz was Fosse's last will and testament, the story of a Broadway choreographer who went through dancers like he went through cigarettes, crushing them with his not-so-soft shoe. And Cabaret was his tribute to Weimar Germany, from which he drew such dark, dank inspiration. But Chicago, which opened on Broadway in 1975, was Fosse's bloody valentine to the ol' U.S. of A., where fame's the name of the game. And nobody drew blood like Bob Fosse.
Staged as a vaudeville revue, Fosse's Chicago is one showstopper after another, and yet the show itself may be unstoppable. I saw the current New York revival a few years ago, with Sandy Duncan, of all people, strutting her hour upon the stage, and I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, she killed. The material's that strong. The show itself, set during the Roaring Twenties, is about a pair of killer-dillers who've offed their husbands and are now trying to sing-and-dance their way into show business using their trials as auditions. And if that may have seemed like a stretch in 1975, when A Chorus Line whupped Chicago at the box office and the Tonys, it didn't seem like such a stretch in the Twenties, and it doesn't seem like one now, when each year brings another trial of the century. Life is a media cabaret, ol' chum.
Those of us who've worn out our Chicago cast albums will just have to get used to the idea that Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera are not playing Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly this time around, Verdon having died and Rivera having largely retired from the stage. Instead, we must make do with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who aren't exactly known as Broadway babies. Thankfully, they both hurl themselves at their roles, Zeta-Jones belting the opening "All That Jazz" number like an old pro. The movie's been built around Zellweger's Roxie, however, whose starstruck imagination dreams up the musical numbers as a way of coping with the stark news that she could be hung for her crimes against society. This nod to Pennies from Heaven is supposed to make it easier for audiences when the performers break into song.
Excuse me, but I happen to love it when performers break into song. Or dance. Or anything else that helps me leave my boring little life behind. Having the musical numbers take place in Roxie's head is an okay idea, and director Rob Marshall choreographs the transitions from drab to ab fab beautifully. But it may not have been necessary. We go to Chicago because we want to be wowed. "Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle," croons jailhouse lawyer Billy Flynn, who, The Cotton Club now long forgotten, is played by Richard Gere. His voice a little reedy, and with some George Jessel inflections thrown in for good measure, Gere also hurls himself at his role. And, as with the others, we judge him less by how good he might have been than by how bad. Gere even hoofs a little bit, a tap-dance that Marshall enhances with skillful editing.
Skillful editing is a hallmark of this production, Marshall having undoubtedly studied Fosse's brilliant work in Cabaret. Some will argue that Chicago is cut to within an inch of its life. Others will argue that within an inch of its life is exactly how Chicago should be cut. I certainly prefer it to Moulin Rouge, which nearly gave me an epileptic seizure. Marshall has rechoreographed everything, and although he owes Fosse a debt here as well, his is a more athletic style of dance ' aerobic rather than acerbic. Fosse turned his dancers into machines, mannequins with sequins, and this contributes to the Brechtian alienation effect that runs through all his shows. The dancing's a turn-on, but in the way a lifelike robot might turn you on. Marshall, except for a fantastic number in which Gere has the press corps dangling from strings, prefers humans.
Zellweger's Roxie, for instance, is all too human, a Marilyn Monroe-ish blonde with an eye on the main chance. It's easy to imagine a Roxie with more moxie, and Zellweger is all over the place when it comes to earning or spurning our sympathy. But just when you think she's all wrong for the part she slinks toward the camera in a dress that would get you arrested in all the Illinois counties but one, and her Gerber-baby face puckers into a pre-coital smile. Still, it's Zeta-Jones' Velma who most deftly massages the City of Big Shoulders. Although schooled in musical theater, Zeta-Jones lacks the precision timing (and the limber lumbar) of a Broadway chorine, but she has what most chorus girls only dream about: star power. When she lowers those eyes and flashes those thighs, she can get away with anything, even murder.