Tuesday, April 15, 2014



My campaign to generate a super-hot publicity driven romance has not been going quite as well as I had hoped. I was sure that I would be muscling that Jell-O or Jay-lo person off the front pages by now, but the spark just hasn't been there, despite three trips to Celebrity Singles Night at the Chateau Marmont. I even wore my best navy blue sequin tap dance tuxedo last night, but still went home empty handed. I've called Madame Rose, my publicist. She's told me not to worry and that she has several possible candidates in the works. Her first suggestion was Michael Jackson, who needs someone to bolster his child friendly credentials, but I draw the line at dangling babies and wearing magenta veils in public.

In the meantime, I'm continuing to work on my many fine lines of consumer products. The holiday themed Mrs. Norman Maine collector dolls did well at Wal-Mart and the company has requested another model for Valentine's day. I've contracted with Mattel for several gross of defective Barbie bodies quite cheap and I'll have another head making party sometime next month. I thought I'd have the VickiWear factory send over some lengths of the You Gotta Have Heart  material from the Damn Yankees sportswear line and I'll wrap the dolls in swatches and call them island sarongs.

After making all these arrangements, I decided some rest and recreation was in order so off I went to the new musical film, Chicago, which has just opened at my neighborhood Cineplex. Despite my sterling credentials and my having headlined the Peoria production of the stage show some years ago, I was not considered for one of the leading roles so I was a bit suspicious as to the quality of the finished film. I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded and that the movie is very good indeed.

Chicago is based on a stage musical from 1975 penned by the composing team of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) whose other works have included Cabaret and New York, New York. It in turn was an adaptation of an earlier stage play of the same title by Chicago newspaper woman Maurine Watkins (filmed in the 1940s with Ginger Rogers in the lead). Watkins was interested in exploring the relationship between crime, punishment and the media which existed in 1920s Chicago, the time of Al Capone and incredible levels of official corruption.

The plot involves Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a young woman of Chicago and wannabe vaudeville star who's married to a lump, Amos (John C. Reilly). While Amos is busy working fourteen hours a day, Roxie delights in the joys of jazz, liquor and screwing around. When her latest paramour, Fred (Dominic West), announces he's had his fun and is leaving, Roxie shoots him, tries to pin it on Amos, but is easily found out and hauled off to Cook County jail where she's put in the less than gentle (and extraordinarily corrupt) hands of Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). In jail, Roxie meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the reigning notorious murderess of gangland Chicago who plugged her sister and husband for spread eagling at the Hotel Cicero without her. Velma has learned that crime has generated the kind of publicity she could only dream about as an entertainer with the help of her grandstanding criminal defense attorney, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).

Amos raises the money for Roxie's defense and she, through Mama Morton's machinations, engages Billy as her lawyer. The spin-hype-publicity machine begins and soon Roxie finds herself the toast of Chicago and Velma is in eclipse. As the two battle for the spotlight, Billy uses various pieces of chicanery and the soft touch of columnist Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) to win his case. At the end, even though Velma and Roxie loathe each other, they realize they'll never realize their show biz ambitions on their own, but as a team of jazz age murderesses, there's no telling to what heights they might ascend.

The show, originally directed on stage by Bob Fosse and starring his muse Gwen Verdon as Roxie and Chita Rivera as Velma, was conceived as a cynical musical vaudeville. The musical numbers, in the style of classic 1920s vaudeville acts (a torch song, a ventriloquist act, a female impersonator), were savage commentaries on these rather despicable characters and their even more despicable actions. While the show was a critical and commercial success, it was not embraced by theatergoers due to its alienating and jaundiced view of the world. The big hit that year was A Chorus Line which was much more hopeful in outlook and style. In the late 1990s, Ann Reinking, one of Fosse's principal dancers (and ex-girlfriend), remounted the piece for City Center's bare bones revivals of classic shows. Her recreation of his choreographic style, the minimalist staging and design, and changes in American society came together to create a modern classic which soon transferred to Broadway where it's still happily ensconced at the Schubert and on tour. The rise of 24 hour news and court television, celebrity court cases (especially that of O.J. Simpson) and an exposure of the true inner workings of politics and the legal system has allowed today's audience to accept this deeply cynical view of the world in ways that were rejected in 1975.

In adapting the piece for the screen, theater director and choreographer Rob Marshall looked to another Fosse work for inspiration, the film version of Cabaret. That film changed musical film making forever by making it nigh on impossible for the realistic medium of film to show people breaking into song and dance without theatrical or heightened stylistic trappings of some sort. Songs continued to move plot, but also acted as commentary on plot and character and, in context, the characters are always aware that they're singing. Going back to the vaudeville trappings of Fosse's original concept, Marshall uses the device of Roxie's imagination as the springboard for launching us into the unreality of the musical numbers. As the film opens, Velma is on stage in a seedy Chicago night club cum vaudeville house singing the famous opening song, All That Jazz amongst a writhing tangle of Fossesque bodies. In the audience Roxie watches raptly, she wants to be up there and to be the star and soon she projects herself into Velma's part. The device works. We know Roxie sees the world in vaudeville terms and, as she encounters new people and situations, she casts them into this medium and we get to enjoy the results.

Marshall takes full advantage of his stars talents and his visual imagination to give us musical numbers vital to story and plot but which also take us to places of wild imaginings. The songs are drenched in neon, sequins, and show biz gimmicks which underscore the whole theme of criminal law as just another form of entertainment. His staging of Razzle Dazzle as a fully fledged circus spectacle happening in the courtroom during the trial is his best marriage of these ideals. Other highlights are the married murderesses of Cook County doing The Cell Block Tango (using some of Broadway's best dancers), the marionette press corps in They Both Reached For The Gun and Roxie's paean to herself and multiple reflections in Roxie. Marshall's major weakness is an over fondness for Baz Luhrmann style flash cutting. There are times when we just want to sit back and drink in the performances, not be pounded with close-ups.

The non-musical portions of the film are shot in a gritty realism reminiscent of other recent period Chicago dramas such as The Road to Perdition or The Untouchables. There was some location shooting, but, for the most part Toronto stands in for cost reasons. This is a Miramax film. The talented cast have no difficulties going back and forth between these styles. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere both got their start in stage musicals and there's a certain effortlessness to their performances as they return to a style of performing perfected in their youth. Zeta-Jones throws everything she has into her Velma - guts, sex appeal, and a level of desperation that's uncanny. Beneath her Louise Brooks bob and a veneer of brittle insouciance, there's a wounded woman and it comes through in spades. Gere is more laid back than he's been in films for years and obviously having a wonderful time, especially in his grandstanding trial scenes.

Renee Zellweger, who was not trained as a stage musical performer, rises to the occasion. Her cameo face, beneath its blond marcelled permanent, shows Roxie's hunger for fame and her willingness to use any means necessary to achieve her goals. Her voice, while not as rich as the other leads, is more than adequate to the task and she has a dancer's control of her body. Only one person comes close to blowing her off the screen, that's Queen Latifah in the smaller role of Mama Morton. It's an inspired bit of casting and her big number, When You're Good To Mama, done Bessie Smith style, is a highlight.

In adapting the source material, Marshall cut several numbers. Most of the deletions are unmissed. In general, stage musicals require more music than films for the same effect - those films which opt to keep an entire score often end up running three hours and more. Several of the missing numbers are heard as background scoring and the events covered in them (Me and My Baby, When Velma Takes The Stand) are handled in other ways. My Own Best Friend, which exists mainly for the purposes of an Act One finale, was jettisoned completely. The two other missing numbers are Mary Sunshine's A Little Bit of Good which I would have liked to see as anything that gives Christine Baranski more screen time is good in my book (although the cut is understandable, given a preconception of the character). The last missing number Class, a duet for Velma and Mama Morton, was filmed (and the set up for it is there) but cut late in the film making process for reasons of pacing. I guess we'll have to wait for the DVD.

I do not know if Chicago will lead to a revival of the film musical. It does show, however, that the genre is not dead and that talented people can make musicals to which a modern audience can respond. Add it to your 'To See' list.

Speakeasy. Feather boas. Symbolic red scarves. Caramel creams. Roxie collector dolls. Scrap books. Hungarian rope trick. Paddy wagon rides. White machine guns. Sad clown number. Humorous Chita Rivera cameo.

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