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Bob Fosse in the era of MTV—“Chicago”

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Something I wrote a few months ago.

There are plenty of good dancers in “Chicago” especially those featured in the six murderesses number.

Ekaterina Shelkanova was a soloist with the ABT. Denise Faye began dancing on Broadway ten years ago. Mya Harrison (who should be forgiven for her part in the dreadful “Lady Marmalade in “Moulin Rouge”) studied tap with Savon Glover.

The movie depicts a universe that partially parallels our own, in which men abuse, beat up, cheat on and generally annoy women. In the world of “Chicago”, though, the women they prey upon are quick to deal with these men. They are shot, (the most typical form of dispatch) garroted, stabbed, poisoned, and pushed from windows. And as Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) says, “I never knew a man who got killed who didn’t deserve it.”

None of the three stars, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere, are good singers or dancers. They are, however, movie stars and occupy the screen as such. The choreography and editing take care of the dancing, while digital doubling and tripling of the voice tracks allows them to sing.

Men are best cast—Gere may be the most self-satisfied mature actor in Hollywood and is perfect as the impossibly smug lawyer Billy Flynn. John C. Riley is almost too good as the long-suffering and gullible Amos Hart. Taye Diggs carries off the thankless role bandleader and Greek chorus and Colm Feore, a stalwart at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, is properly reptilian as the Assistant District Attorney.

On the distaff side, Queen Latifah obviously needs little vocal digital enhancement. She also seems to enjoy her role, playing it for all the campy gusto it has.

Zeta-Jones, with her Louise Brooks bob, is the epitome of a femme fatale. The director, Rob Marshall, who is also credited first among the four choreographers, wisely did not let the camera linger on her for too long when she was in the same frame as professional dancers. As an audience we have become used to frenetic editing and jump cuts, so it is less obvious than it would have been in years past. She does move well and has a terrific body—like a stripper from the 1950s or a leading actress from the 1940s. Lily St. Cyr, or Rita Hayworth, for example.

She has a throaty, smoky dramatic mezzo—almost a contralto—without much upper extension, but not much is needed in the keys in which she sings. She has the best singing voice of the three leading players, has a good sense of rhythm and knows what syllables in what words to emphasize.

Zellweger’s voice is another matter entirely. Her singing sounds as if it would be unpleasant without digital enhancement and sweetening. It is very “white”—no vibrato almost like an English choirboy’s voice but lacking the beauty. A squawky tone with no breath support. Given that all her songs can be delivered with the Broadway “belt” voice, it isn’t too bad.

Gere doesn’t really sing, but he places his voice well and knows how to sell a song.

The structure of constantly cutting between musical numbers and the depressing, tawdry and mean “real” life that they reflect is shockingly effective at first, with Zeta-Jones on stage, having just shot her husband and Zellweger shooting the cad who has seduced and abandoned her. Or attempted to abandon her—he is shot dead before he gets out the door.

But since every number (except the six murderesses) is cut this way, it becomes a bit of a bore by the end.

There was only one great number—“They both reached for the gun”, in which Gere becomes a ventriloquist with Zellweger sitting on his knee as his dummy and the press corps become puppets whose strings he pulls.

A note about the death and revival of movie musicals—there have been several movies recently that could be called musicals, in the sense that there are musical performances throughout the film, generally integrated into the action but sometimes just dropped in. Among them are “8 Mile”, “Drumline” and O Brother Where Art Thou”. “8 Mile” was a huge hit here in Motown and did well elsewhere. “Drumline” was marketed to an African-American audience, “O Brother” was pitched as a semi-art house movie, like most those done by the Coen brothers.

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