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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CHICAGO (article first published : 2003-04-15)

The top contender for this year's Oscars is a truly stunning piece of work - a razzle-dazzle gem of a musical, audaciously, stylishly and imaginatively transferred from stage to screen by director/choreographer Rob Marshall, a name to watch.

In its bold and novel use of flashy editing, atmospheric lighting, skimpy costumes, colourful sets and sexy choreography, Marshall's fabulous film conjures memories of those earlier Best Picture Academy Award nominees, Cabaret and All That Jazz.

And the connection goes further - legendary choreographer Bob Fosse directed both those early musicals. And Chicago, featuring a magnificent spread of songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the geniuses behind Cabaret, was the show Fosse originally directed and choreographed on Broadway in 1975, when it first opened.

Revived on stage in 1996 in a more minimalist format and choreographed anew in homage to the distinctive Fosse style, the musical has since gone on to conquer the world and is still playing to full houses across the globe.

The film version which, over the years, has been linked to just about everyone from Goldie Hawn to Madonna to Charlize Theron, now finally arrives to give star performers not readily associated with song and dance the chance to sparkle. And glitter they do, wiping away any smirks that may have greeted first news of the casting.

A sexy, versatile Catherine Zeta Jones, who started out as a dancer in the West End, and an effective, if painfully pale and thin, Renee Zellweger, a newcomer to musicals, are Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart respectively. They are two merry murderesses in 1920s Chicago.

Velma, a sassy vaudeville star, is in the Cook County Jail for fatally shooting the other half of her sister act; and Roxie, a housewife with dreams of making it big in showbiz, is in the pen for plugging holes into a lover who misled her into believing he'd put her on the road to fame. Through the connections of their buxom, money-hungry, conniving warden, Mama Nortom (Queen Latifah), the two are put in touch with charismatic lawyer Billy Flynn (RIchard Gere), noted for never having lost a case. He sets out, through the press and, in particular gullible reporter Mary Sunshine (played on stage by a man in drag; here by Christine Baranski), to turn his clients into celebrities, to help them win their court cases.

Billy masterminds Roxie's press conference - brilliantly depicted as a ventriloquist act, with lots of string-pulling and a doll-like Roxie mouthing Billy's words - and she becomes flavour of the month. But Velma, given the back seat, does not take kindly to the lost limelight. She tries to talk Roxie into teaming with her for a double act, but Roxie turns her down - only to find her own headlines replaced by the latest sordid crime of passion.

Although Zeta-Jones, who does a lot more dancing that Zellweger, shines brightest in this giant, glossy sequin of a film, Zellweger is also a treat, along with a tap-dancing, confident Gere. Both women earned Oscar nominations, along with Queen Latifah and a stand-out John C Reilly, as Roxie's shy and obliging hubby, Amos.

Marshall's direction is never less than inspired, a clever, deft meshing of fantasy and reality, and his choreography is terrific, most notably in the showstopping Cell Block Tango sequence.

And if there are grumbles about six songs having been dropped among them the memorable Class, A Little Bit of Good and When Velma Takes the Stand - one can only applaud the oomph and sass of a musical that covers everything from murder, greed, corruption and violence to exploitation, adultery and treachery. And, of course, all that jazz!

The film, which both celebrates and satirises celebrity and the justice system, earned 13 Oscar nominations and won golden statuettes yesterday for best film, supporting actress (Zeta-Jones), editing, costume design and art direction.

The film is the first musical since Oliver! to win the Best Picture Oscar. Don't miss it! Rating: 10/10. - Billy Suter




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