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Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance

Stephen Sondheim's work is highlighted right next door at the Mark Taper Forum, where his musical Putting It Together is playing (with Carol Burnett, John Barrowman, Susan Egan and Bronson Pinchot), but Bob Fosse, the multiple Tony Award, Oscar, and Emmy-winning director and choreographer, is back at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. He was represented there just a few months ago in Chicago, and I remember seeing his Dancin' there over 15 years ago. But now it's ALL about Bob Fosse's career. Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance reminds us of the legacy that this genius left to the worlds of musical theatre and dance. What it also does is serve to remind us of how the musical theatre truly misses Bob Fosse's unique style. There never has been and may never be another one like him.

This incredibly energetic tribute to the master was conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. (who also directed this production), Chet Walker (who recreated the choreography) and Ann Reinking (who is the co-director and co-choreographer) and supervised by Fosse's one-time wife and lead dancer (New Girl in Town, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago), Gwen Verdon. And what an evening it is! This show is very difficult for me to review, in that the only flaw in it is that it eventually had to end.

The curtain opens on a bare black stage and the image of Bob Fosse looking upon that stage, where a silhouetted Valarie Pettiford starts singing the show's book-end number, "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" from Big Deal. Ms. Pettiford is an awesome talent who commands the stage with her singing and dancing, and she virtually hosts the evening.

We are then treated to a montage of Fosse dances - from various works including the motion picture "The Little Prince", and the stage musicals Damn Yankees, Redhead, New Girl in Town, Little Me, Sweet Charity, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cabaret, and Chicago - performed by the entire company. This is when we first see again how immensely talented this man was.

The first act continues with Ms. Pettiford leading seventeen other members of the company in the sexiest rendition of "Bye Bye Blackbird" (from the television special "Liza with a Z") I've ever seen. The lighting and the moves serve to bring an extra layer of electricity into the theatre. And this is still all within what is considered the "Prologue" by the production team!

We then witness an exhilarating rendition of a boxing-like, highly-energized style of dancing, "From the Edge", performed by three male dancers and "Percussion 4", a male solo (both of which are from Dancin'). Then there's a raucously entertaining, beautifully lit and designed, exquisitely costumed version of "Big Spender" (from Sweet Charity), the night's first showstopper. The audience is treated to Neil Diamond's "Crunchy Granola Suite" (from Dancin' again), rollickingly danced by twelve men and women and sung by the company's Brad Anderson and Eugene Fleming. What a joy!

Next up is a transition into the "Hooray for Hollywood" section, where we are treated to recreations of dancing originally choreographed by Fosse and performed by him and Carol Haney in the film, "Kiss Me, Kate", and from "Alley Dance" (from the movie "My Sister Eileen"), originally danced by Fosse and Tommy Rall. Truly thrilling to watch! After a ballet-like transition inspired by Redhead, "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" (Dancin'), danced in the lead by Fleming, Pettiford, Jane Lanier and Scott Wise (yes, the Tony-winner) and accompanied by fourteen other members of the company, is elegantly presented. A big, wonderful number, it ends the first act leaving us clamoring for whatever's coming next.

Act II starts with a delightfully entertaining "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal Mo", utilizing all the male company members in this number from Damn Yankees. A big number, staged by Ann Reinking (inspired by Fosse/Niles or Fosse appearances on such television shows as "Your Hit Parade", "The Morey Amsterdam Show", "The Colgate Comedy Hour", "The Burns and Allen Show", the motion picture "The Affairs of Dobie Gillis", the tv shows "Calvalcade of Stars" and "The Ed Sullivan Show") follows that, and we are again dazzled by the precision and physicality of these dancers. What comes next is another showstopper: the "Steam Heat" number from The Pajama Game. What a fun, inventive piece that is! With the three dancers - Jane Lanier, Brad Musgrove and Christopher R. Kirby - moving in such inspired unison, bowler hats on all, the audience goes nuts.

This is followed by "I Gotcha" (from "Liza With a Z") and a beautifully elegant segment from Sweet Charity, performed by fifteen members of the company. There is then a beautiful huge red scarf that cascades to the stage from the rafters, signaling the beginning of the "Cool Hand Luke" number - originally choreographed for Gwen Verdon (with Lee Roy Reams and Buddy Vest) for a 1968 Bob Hope television special - as performed in a wonderfully tantalizing, western-erotic style by Elizabeth Parkinson, Desmond Richardson and Christopher R. Kirby. We then watch another dazzling number from Big Deal ("Dancin' Dan [Me and My Shadow]"), followed by a terrific rendition of "Nowadays" and "The Hot Honey Rag" (from Chicago), performed by the two women who are clearly the female stars (and standouts) of this production, Valarie Pettiford and Jane Lanier.

Act III begins with two wonderful numbers from Pippin, and then Ms. Pettiford's (accompanied by six women) glorious rendition of "Mein Herr" from Cabaret. There is then the "Take Off With Us" number (from the 1979, semi-autobiographical film "All That Jazz"), three pas de deux - woman-woman, man-woman, man-man - an incredibly steamy, yet all-too-brief extract from that portion of the motion picture. Another demonstration of how perfect the bodies are that are on stage.

Scott Wise then puts on his Billy Flynn hat to entertain us with his version of "Razzle Dazzle" (Chicago), and what a winning job he does. Two numbers from "All That Jazz" follow - the follies-girl number, "Who's Sorry Now", and "There'll Be Some Changes Made", sung in the film by a threesome of Fosse's alter-ego's ex-wife, emotionally-abused mistress and his daughter - and once again we are reminded of Fosse's irreverent, yet in-your-face style.

Another highlight of the Fosse repertoire comes up next, the haunting "Mr. Bojangles" (from Dancin'), sung by Andy Blankenbuehler, and danced by Sergio Trujillo as Bojangles, and Desmond Richardson as the Spirit. I remember seeing this number performed years ago, and the graceful and tender impression it left on me has never left - how amazing to see it once again, and so movingly performed.

Ms. Pettiford then reprises her "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" number, which has new meaning for the audience, which has just been taken on this dazzling journey. Not only should we be aware that there is good and bad in the world and, thus, not take everything so seriously, but we have also been taken for a journey in which this production's creators have (cherry) picked some of the most incredible, illustrative and diverse numbers of Bob Fosse's amazing career in order to present the breadth of his genius.

What follows the "Cherries" number is a finale in which the entire company is joined on stage by the swing members of the band to perform Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" (also from Dancin'), a rousing, unbelievably energetic capper to a tremendous evening of entertainment.

The entire company is so talented and unbelievably attractive to watch, and they all captured the essence of what made Fosse so special: the importance of the flip of the wrist, the stylized poses, the raw energy, the sleek sexiness of every movement. Fosse made use of everything that was on stage - everything on stage was part of the design - every light, costume accessory, movement, sparkle, curtain, note of music. The lights (Andrew Bridge), the sound (Jonathan Deans) and the design (Santo Loquasto) here are brilliant. Nothing is extraneous, and this excellent sampling is the best way to pay tribute to one of the true giants of theatre, a man of immeasurable talent, Bob Fosse.

To sum it all up, Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance is exactly what its title promises, a true celebration of the master. As the image of Fosse reappears at the end of the finale looking upon the stage, you know that he wouldn't have been anything but pleased. I can't urge you strongly enough to see this production. It plays at the Ahmanson through December 6, and is scheduled to open on Broadway in March..


-- Jerry Howard




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