|Before you even ask, no, we haven't seen the stage version of Chicago. (Hell, we haven't even seen Chicago itself, unless you want to count the domestic terminal at O'Hare.) No, the only show we've seen since moving to New York is Puppetry of the Penis, and to our great disappointment, there weren't any musical numbers in it.
Of course, a movie adaptation should be able to stand on its own as an artistic work, so perhaps it was better that we didn't know the source material going in. We knew the general theme: Jazz-Age Chicago setting, murderous chicks behind bars, backstabbing drama queens, sleazy lawyers and a big finale including pyrotechnics, acrobatics and a guy in a Godzilla suit. (We might've been misled about that last part.) And we'd heard great things about Chicago, how it was a delightful tour-de-force of singing, dancing and stagecraft. So we gleefully slithered into a theater seat for a slice of old Chicago.
And we were...whelmed. Not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed, just whelmed. We're still not sure where the cinematic achievement that other critics have gushed about might have been, but the cheerily cynical spectacle that unfolded before us held our attention pretty firmly, made us giggle in places, reinforced our long-held girl-crush on Queen Latifah (isn't she great? she's just so great!), showed us some nice moves and cool costumery and then pretty much evaporated from our forebrain.
The gist of Chicago is that crime can be the start of a great showbiz career, if you play the media just right. As the movie begins, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has just shot the other half of her sister act and the other half of her marriage; she does her regular nightly club act just before getting arrested. Showgirl wannabe Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) watches Velma from the audience, dreaming of a spotlight of her own. Instead, she gets a cell of her own for shooting her lying, furniture-peddling lover.
Roxie fails to convince her trusting stooge of a husband (John C. Reilly, again) to take the fall for her, so she has to rely on hotshot attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere!?!) to get her acquitted of the crime she unrepentantly committed. Kickball-changes ensue.
The musical numbers, basically, are the sole reason to watch Chicago. Yeah, yeah, that's true with almost any musical, but particularly true in this case, since the story itself lacks genuinely likeable characters, philosophical meaning and depth of emotion. So that leaves us with the song-and-dance numbers, and that's not always a good thing.
From what we've read, Queen Latifah only gets to do one of her character's two original songs, and that's not remotely right. "When You're Good to Momma," a marathon of single entendres outlining the quid-pro-quo nature of prisoner-warden relations, forms a fantastic showcase for Latifah's rich voice and robust sauciness (she's just the coolest! we're gonna be her best pen pal ever!). Working those same qualities, along with a rather thrilling ruthlessness, is Zeta-Jones, whose numbers come the closest to magic that Chicago gets.
On the flip side, we winced a little every time Zellweger sang. She's a great little (and we mean that quite literally; when she referred to her boobs in one song, we had to wonder where they'd gone since the days of Bridget Jones' fabulous cleavage) actress, but her singing voice sounds as strained as Dubya's syntax and her dancing suffers badly when compared to Zeta-Jones's lush fluidity. Zellweger's wooden dancing style was utterly perfect for the "press conference" number, where Roxie is treated like a ventriloquist's dummy. And we did mention that Richard Gere was cast, right? Let's leave it at that.
It's not that Chicago is bad, or even mediocre; it's a pleasant-enough diversion, and you'll probably leave the theater with a smile on your face. Which, we guarantee, is more than patrons of Kangaroo Jack can say.