By all accounts, Bob Fosse was a tormented man. He was a desperate womanizer, he abused drugs, he both hated show business and loved it. And by the time the famous choreographer died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 60, he had left the unique imprint of his neuroses and joys on more than a score of musicals and films. Millions of people who do not, perhaps, know his name are familiar with the Fosse mode of dancing, with its cocked-hip brashness, its sleight of hand with derbies and boaters, its bizarre contractions from exultation to crouched, tiptoeing guardedness. He used to say he developed that style out of his own limitations as a dancer. To hide his premature baldness he developed a way with hats. To disguise his lack of flexibility, he invented a more economical, eccentric style.
Not only did he dance that way himself, but he also choreographed those unique moves on the hundreds of dancers who worked for him in stage shows such as Damn Yankees (1955) and Chicago (1975). The movies he directed include a couple that feature no dancing at all: Lenny (1974) and Star80 (1983). But his greatest fame flows from the films he both directed and choreographed, most notably the brilliant Cabaret (1972), in which a Berlin nightclub of the 1920s foreshadows the holocaust of the Second World War, and the hypnotic All That Jazz (1979), in which Fosse audaciously memorialized his own life.
Now, he has a new memorial in Fosse, A Celebration in Song and Dance. Last week, the Livent revue received its world premiere in Toronto, just hours before its producer, Livent vice-chairman Garth Drabinsky, was asked to step down because of alleged accounting irregularities. Ultimately aimed at the American market—this fall Fosse travels to Boston and Los Angeles and then on to New York City—the show reconstructs some of the best work from the choreographer’s 35year career. It features a cast of 36 performers (two of them Canadian) who sing almost as impressively as they dance.
And it hard-sells the whole package with a glamor Fosse himself might have admired.
Yet for all that, the show is, at best, a mixed success. Despite
some captivating interludes, it impresses more than it moves, overwhelms more than it seduces. Some of the problem is in the staging. To create a seamless web of dance and song, choreographer Ann Reinking, Fosse’s lover and co-vivant for six years, has created transition pieces between some of the main offerings. Other dances simply flow into each other without warning. The effect is nonstop entertainment—a barrage of sensation that grows exhausting long before the show ends.
But the deeper problem may lie with Fosse’s work itself. He created his choreography to punctuate the narratives of films and musicals. There, it seemed fresh, inventive, joyously welcome. But when Fosse’s dance numbers must carry the entire burden of a 272-hour show, a certain sameness creeps in. Fosse was inventive, but not infinitely so. Overexposure can make his dance vocabulary—all that crouching, hat work and anguished ambiguity—seem surprisingly repetitive. And then there are the limitations of the tradition he worked in. Although he transformed the Broadway style with his own vision, he kept much of its repetition and unison dancing. The effect, over time, can be oppressive.
Fosse is at its best when the fine dancing coincides with classic melodies. Fosse often had to choreograph to second-rate scores that sound no more interesting than cocktail jazz. But when he got to work with great songs such as Bye Bye Blackbird—hauntingly sung in Fosse by the sensational Valarie Pettiford—his dances seem to take wing. Another of the show’s highlights is accompanied by Jerry Jeff Walker’s plaintive Mr. Bojangles. In the foreground, an old hobo (Sergio Trujillo) scrapes and shuffles, recalling the dancer he once was. In the background, in a floating spotlight, a youthful dancer (the impossibly lithe and charismatic Desmond Richardson) leaps and twirls with the ease of a spirit.
Fosse’s impish, dangerous sense of humor also provides welcome moments. In the number Take Off With Us, the dancers make a pun on the title by stripping off their airline uniforms and—clad only in the briefest of black briefs and bras—engage in a mock orgy that rapidly turns hellish, reflecting Fosse’s ambiguous attitude to sex.
The piece is darkly fascinating, and momentarily lifts the show clear of the overkill that weighs down so much of it. With Fosse, a little goes a long way. A lot, alas, is too much.
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