Movie lovers seldom expect Richard Gere to look like he’s having a jolly good time in a movie, much less a musical. But he’s having the time of his life in Chicago and he is its biggest surprise. When he arrives, in a swirl of flash cuts, we’re actually more than a little happy to see him; he gets us out of John Myhre’s blackened jailhouse ambiance and provides a much needed razzmatazz. We’re told he does his own singing and tap dancing, but it wouldn’t matter if he doesn’t—he’s ingratiating simply because no one else is; he’s the thin blanket to fight off the chill. And there’s definitely something nippy if not frosty at the center of Rob Marshall’s post-Sweet Charity/Cabaret concept—an ample lack of audience empathy for Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. As laudably hard-working as these two troupers are, no one could mistake them as warm; they’re robbed of any opportunity to connect with us intimately. While I can’t totally figure out why, on the surface it probably has a lot to do with Martin Walsh’s staccato editing; the cuts are so speed-demon razor-sharp that they never give us much of a chance to indulge these killer broads. Or absorb the Marshall choreography: the virtuosity of the editing not only takes away from the pleasures of dance in a number like “Cell Block Tango” but also interferes with the director’s clever implementation, especially with the Marionette “We Both Reached for the Gun,” during which we don’t get much time to enjoy a whole view of the waggish theatrical blocking. During “Cell Block Tango,” Zeta-Jones’s alarming, thick callousness, at its zenith when she’s manic-depressively braying the lyrics “He Had It Coming,” reinforces the chilliness, which would otherwise guarantee the hangman’s noose. If a musical doesn’t have heart, it could likely indicate bloodlessness and clearly Chicago substitutes with adrenaline. Wonderful that there’s endless energy in the production, yet Marshall’s intensity deprives the audience of an embraceable satisfaction. I suspect that’s because many of today’s theatre-trained musical directors are wanting of the skills to establish a movie audience rapport with characters. In their 24/7 world of fractured emotions, there’s only room for noisy whirling hyperbole to keep us from feeling too desensitized. Maybe that’s why Zellweger (and not, say, Reese Witherspoon) was cast as Roxie Hart: a cheap moll, she whines estrangement; when she sings “Roxie Hart” against the mirrors, she’s a scrawny, remote Marilyn Monroe doing a stagy Barbara Loden. Interviewed in “The Making of Chicago,” Marshall tells us he’s making a satire, suggesting he has a target we never see realized, but what he appears to have made is a noirish burlesque. A shoot-the-works tribute to Bob Fosse, Chicago appears to be a nearly perfect illustration of amorality—all flash and slash and trash, with a huge booty at the end for getting away with murder. Academy Awards: Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.