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Chicago on CD: A Survey

Matthew Murray reviews the soundtrack CD of Chicago and weighs the virtues and flaws of previous recordings of the Kander and Ebb score. logo

It seemed as if the movie version of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago would never arrive but, of course, it finally has. The vision of director-choreographer Rob Marshall and the casting of Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Lucy Liu, and Taye Diggs have alredy helped the film find tremendous critical and audience acclaim -- and it hasn't even "opened wide" yet.

As we wait for the awards to start rolling in and for the film to appear on DVD, we can enjoy the soundtrack album on the Epic label. It's an attractively produced, highly enjoyable recording, a good presentation of the songs that make the movie (and the stage show) so distinctive. If the CD provides a less than thoroughly enchanting experience, that's because of the highly visual nature of the film, not to mention its great reliance on dialogue to put the story across.

As presented on screen, the musical numbers take place almost entirely in the mind of the show's central figure, Roxie Hart (Zellweger), who imagines herself the next big vaudeville star. The two major exceptions to this rule are the opening and closing numbers of the film. Zeta-Jones starts things off with a bang, belting out "All That Jazz" with a fiery aplomb that, in itself, seems to reinvent the song. Zellweger makes a brief vocal appearance here -- singing one word, "jazz" -- but is prominent in the final sung number, "Nowadays," which begins as a solo and eventually becomes a duet with Zeta-Jones.

The strongest impression on the disc is made by Zeta-Jones; she's especially terrific in "I Can't Do It Alone" and "Class," the latter number filmed but not included in the final release version of the movie (though it is tracked on the disc in the place where it would occur). Z-J also sparks the "Cell Block Tango," in which several of the ensemble women get a few moments in the spotlight.

Aside from the contributions noted above, Zellweger makes her mark in the torch-song-gone-wrong "Funny Honey" and in her big solo, "Roxie." For someone with an admitted lack of formal vocal training, she sounds pretty great. As Billy Flynn, the lawyer who can make sure anyone is found innocent, Richard Gere has three full numbers on the disc. He displays a fine voice -- a bit thin and nasal in tone, perhaps, but nonetheless effective -- in "All I Care About," "We Both Reached for the Gun," and "Razzle Dazzle."

Queen Latifah has a great time as Matron Mama Morton, sharing "Class" with Zeta-Jones and going all Sophie Tucker in her solo, "When You're Good to Mama." John C. Reilly makes his Amos impossible to ignore, providing intense spoken interjections in "Funny Honey" and finding the disappointment in the character's self-pitying showstopper "Mister Cellophane." Christine Baranski's role of sob-sister Mary Sunshine was drastically reinterpreted for the film. She has no solo number -- in fact, her singing is limited to a few lines in "We Both Reached for the Gun" -- but she sounds fine.

There are a few other tracks on the disc: The new Kander and Ebb song "I Move On," sung by Zellweger and Zeta-Jones over the end credits of the movie, is very tuneful and an excellent match for the rest of the score. "Roxie's Suite" and "After Midnight," written by Danny Elfman, are used as underscoring. Though I could have lived without Queen Latifah's rap version of the "Cell Block Tango" and Anastacia's "Love Is a Crime," I've definitely heard worse.

The most significant problem with the Chicago soundtrack may have been unavoidable: Ralph Burns's original stage orchestrations are superb, jazzy, and as sharp as the characters. The film's orchestrators, Doug Besterman and Larry Blank, keep the spirit but lose the juice; the songs somehow sound less exciting and alive than on the available stage recordings, but there's no easy answer as to which of these is ideal.

The original 1975 Broadway cast album (Arista) is essential if only for its one-of-a-kind leads: Gwen Verdon (Roxie), Chita Rivera (Velma), and Jerry Orbach (Billy). Mary McCarty has lots of attitude as Mama Morton, Barney Martin is a near-perfect Amos, and M. O'Haughey gives perhaps the definitive performance of Mary Sunshine. While the recording preserves the excitement of the show when it was new, it is less than complete, missing a fair amount of dance music and a couple of vocal numbers. Still, the performances make it highly worthwhile. (Just Listen to Verdon doing the "Roxie" monologue.)

The RCA cast album of the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago -- the spectacular success of which helped make the film possible -- features more material but is also incomplete. It does have most of the dance music plus the Tony-winning performances of Bebe Neuwirth as Velma and James Naughton as Billy Flynn, and the band plays energetically under Rob Fisher. Ann Reinking is one of the weakest recorded Roxies. Still, from a historical standpoint, you almost have to own this recording.

Finally, there's the London revival cast CD, also from RCA. This is the most complete recording of the score to date, including the "Roxie" monologue and the Act I finale, both of which are missing elsewhere. The disc features one of the best sung Roxies: Ruthie Henshall. Ute Lemper is great as Velma and Henry Goodman's consistency of voice makes him a fine Billy Flynn. Only the spoken dialogue included here mars the recording, with Henshall and Lemper giving painfully broad performances that don't make a strong case for Chicago's book.

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