Regional Reviews: Seattle
Can you think of any individual who made more of an impact on Broadway's iconography than Bob Fosse? The mere mention of his name brings to mind black garbed dancers with bowler hats on heads, gloves on hands, and bodies arranged in an unnatural, yet highly specific and sensual manner. Now take a moment to think about any other Broadway choreographer or director. What comes to mind are specific shows or songs, not a look or style.
And no other individual has carved out such a broad niche in the arts as Bob Fosse. As a performer, he appeared in shows like Call Me Mister and Pal Joey on Broadway. He went on to choreograph The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Bells are Ringing, New Girl in Town, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He then expanded his hyphenate to 'Director/Choreographer' with Redhead, Little Me, Sweet Charity, and Pippin, and even further to 'Writer/Director/Choreographer' with Chicago, Dancin' and Big Deal. On film, he can be seen dancing in Kiss Me Kate (in which he choreographed the first 45 seconds of "From This Moment On"), and The Little Prince, and directed Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, and Star 80. In 1973, he was the first and only person to win an Oscar (Cabaret), a Tony (Pippin), and an Emmy (Liza with a Z) all in the same year. Needless to say, if anybody deserves a retrospective of his career, it is Bob Fosse.
Unfortunately, the creators of Fosse, which won the 1999 Tony for Best Musical, don't agree with me, and have instead put together an evening which is more akin to a dance concert than a musical or retrospective. It's all subjective, of course, but for me Fosse is a failure on all levels, and is one of the most frustrating evenings I have ever spent in a theater.
In Fosse, Director/Co-Conceiver/Co-Choreographer Ann Reinking recreates or reinterprets six numbers from Dancin', three from All that Jazz, two from Big Deal, Sweet Charity and Liza with a Z, and one from The Pajama Game, Pippin, Cabaret, Chicago and a Bob Hope Variety special. As she was involved with Dancin' and All That Jazz, it's no big surprise that they represent the lion's share of the program. But it is a disappointment, since in doing so she neglects some of his greatest triumphs, as well as most of his early work.
An even bigger disappointment is that there is nothing of the man behind Fosse represented, and that lack of information means that you only get out of the show what you bring into it. For example, how much more poignant is it to see "There'll Be Some Changes Made" from All That Jazz knowing that Bob Fosse, like his slightly fictionalized counterpart in the film, died of a heart attack? In fact, how well does the number even work without an explanation for the heartbeat that acts as background for the song?
Indeed, the entire structure of the show makes little sense. Why open with "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" from Big Deal, a number that has no movement what so ever? (Answer: Because it was Bob Fosse's favorite song ... again, information you needed going into the show). Why follow it up with the mish-mash "Fosse's World" number, which condenses all of his moves into a three minute dance segment, making the rest of the show seem overly familiar (and giving it the feel of a scavenger hunt checklist; "Bowler hat? Check! Finger snaps? Check! Pelvic tilts? Check, check, check!"). Even more questionable is the lack of introduction for the numbers. Unless you are well versed in his shows or were able to memorize the program before the show, you have no way of knowing where each number is from. Even a title projected on a scrim or back wall would have helped end some confusion and give some context to the songs. For example: one of the rarest numbers in Fosse is "Cool Hand Luke" from a 1968 Bob Hope special. Unfortunately, without a proper set-up, it looks exactly like the numbers from Dancin' and Big Deal which have comprised the majority of the show.
And that is another problem with Fosse; Bob Fosse, while possessing a strong visual style, had a limited vocabulary of moves. A great deal of his genius was in how he set the numbers visually and technically, and how he used chorus and dancing to comment on or act as a counter point to what was happening in the show. This makes some of the choices in the show extremely perplexing. Why choose "Manson Trio" to represent Pippin when "Magic to Do" with its curtain of light is one of Fosse's most brilliant staging concepts? Or why not recreate "With You" from Pippin with its juxtaposition of a sweet love song and a raunchily choreographed orgy? If they had to choose "Razzle Dazzle" from Chicago instead of "All That Jazz" or "Cell Block Tango" (both of which are stronger numbers which better showcase Fosse's style), why do a truncated version instead of the whole number?
A lot of this could be forgiven or even overlooked if the dancers were up to par. However, even in that aspect Fosse disappoints. Bob Fosse's style relies on a combination of precision, playfulness and sexuality producing the optimum effect with the minimum of motion. Unfortunately, the majority of the dancers in the touring production are sloppy and careless, which blunts the effect of many of the big chorus numbers. "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" from (appropriately enough) Dancin' had arms flailing everywhere, and the effectiveness of the number was diminished by the lack of precision in the steps and the hand slaps. The same problems occurred in most of the big chorus numbers, the exception being "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, which was the best version I have ever seen. Solo numbers were more effective, especially "Percussion 4" from Dancin', which featured the best dancer in Fosse, Terace Jones, one of the few performers who got the playful sexuality of Bob Fosse's style. Also from Dancin' and featuring Terace Jones and Cassel Miles was "Mr. Bojangles," which was the emotional high spot of the show, and the closest I came to feeling like I saw a bit of Fosse the man.
Overall, Fosse just was not the show I wanted to see, nor did it, in my opinion, do justice to Bob Fosse. If Ann Reinking wanted to revive Dancin', I wish she would have done so, and done a separate show which gave a more balanced look at Bob Fosse's genius and career. Normally, I hate to compare shows, but in this instance I feel its warranted. A decade ago, a similar show hit Broadway which focused on Jerome Robbins. The show, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, was much more successful in displaying the strengths and contributions of a director and choreographer who had, I feel, a lesser impact on Broadway. After seeing Jerome Robbins' Broadway, I left the theater knowing more about a man I knew nothing about going in, and I had a sense of his contribution to Broadway. It also made me want to go and see each and every one of his shows. After leaving Fosse, I not only felt like I learned nothing about Bob Fosse but I felt that if I had not known anything about him going in, I would have felt he was a one-trick wonder with a limited dance vocabulary, and that his contribution to theater was highly over-rated. Instead of making me want to go see his shows, it made me want to see his movies, so I could see him and his numbers in their full glory, hardly the reaction he deserves. In an interview with a Seattle reviewer, Gwen Verdon mentioned that there are plans for a sequel. Hopefully that one will give us a better glimpse at Bob Fosse and his career.
The current tour of Fosse runs at Seattle's Paramount Theatre through August 6th. For more information or for tickets, visit their website, www.theparamount.com.
- Jonathan Frank