The sensuous slouch, the bowler hat placed rakishly on the tilted head, the turned-in pigeon toes, undulating abdomen, hands reaching out as if roping in their prey, or palms up in the air shaking as if in mock surrender; that last is called jazz hands by people who recognize the Fosse style. And the Fosse style is familiar to anybody who’s seen one of the Broadway musicals Bob Fosse directed and choreographed, such as “Chicago,” “Pippin,” “Sweet Charity.” Or “Dancin’,” which ran on Broadway from 1978 to 1982, and is opening tonight at the Music Box Theater, now called “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’,” revised and directed by the Tony-winning choreographer Wayne Cilento, who was a singer and dancer in the original production.
“Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” is a highly energetic if uneven two hour exploration of the Fosse style — sultry hip rolls, sure, but also athletic leaps. The show has no overall plot, and a stage set that looks designed for a rock concert tour — big, black industrial-looking scaffolding and a back wall that serves as a video screen, mostly for flashes of color. But there are dozens of sometimes dazzling dances performed by twenty-two gorgeously talented and hard-working cast members. They don’t just dance — there’s a poem here, a monologue there, occasional brief dialogue, some competent singing – but boy do they dance! Five of the performers are making their Broadway debuts, but most are veterans of Broadway ensembles, several for twenty years or more, who for the first time are seeing their names in lights, literally — projected in huge letters behind them one by one as each takes their bows at the end.
You needn’t be a dance enthusiast to find something wonderful in that acknowledgement. But there’s an ironic edge to those individual curtain calls. There are so many dancers, and so many dance numbers, with each lasting only a few minutes — most of them ensemble numbers rather than solos or duets — that few dancers get a chance to stand out. Or, put more positively, everybody shines. This seems to be by design, and apparently differs from the original. Both Ann Reinking and Cilanto himself made enough of an impression to be nominated for Tony Awards for their performances. In a recent interview, Cilento said that in the new production he’s divvied up what was his part among four different men, and I suspect he did something similar with Reinking’s part.
The performer who probably gets the most stage time in the revised show is Peter John Chursin, who portrays Cyril, the central character in “Big City Mime,” as a newcomer to the Big City (clearly New York, although never named.) Cyril is supposed to be a rube (although he’s confusingly costumed like a private investigator in a fedora.) He arrives in sleazy Times Square (the back wall projecting X-rated marquees) accosted by sex workers who sing “Big Spender” (from “Sweet Charity.”) Then he moves through nine more encounters (musical/dance numbers) hooked to Fosse shows or performances – among them, a “Pippin” number in a bookstore with Dylis Croman as a saleswoman and the ensemble dressed as Roman soldiers (because they’re discussing a book about conquerors); a duet with Manuel Herrera as a harassing street hawker that’s a competitive “Alley Dance” (which Fosse performed in the 1955 film “My Sister Eileen”); a drug-infused encounter at a bar and backroom massage parlor with the ensemble doing “The Rich Man’s Frug”(again from “Sweet Charity.”) The place is raided by police, after which Chursin sings “A Snake In The Grass” (which Fosse performed in the 1974 movie adaptation of “The Little Prince.”) Cyril winds up at an S & M bathhouse, where the ensemble sings “Let Me Entertain You” (from “Gypsy,” a song and a show I didn’t think had anything to do with Fosse, except thematically), and Kolton Krouse as an androgynous bathhouse chanteuse sings “Spring Chicken’s S&M Song.” (a new song by David Dabbon,)
“Big City Mime” ends with the bathhouse patrons knocking Cyril unconscious and kicking him out onto the street. When he regains consciousness, he performs “Ring Them Bells” (a Kander and Ebb song created for “Liza with a “Z,” which Fosse directed and co-produced.)
“Big City Mime” was not in the original “Dancin’” (it was cut during tryouts), and is the longest and most elaborate piece, but it is typical of the show in many ways – its overwhelming in-the-know sampling of Fosse’s oeuvre; its mainstreaming of what once was considered sleaze, but is now widely viewed as sexy; the vigorous work-out it gives to the entire company.
Although “Big City Mime” comes closest in “Dancin’” to a full-fledged coherent ballet, there are several other collections of musical/dance numbers tied to specific themes. The musical number “Mr. Bojangles” is prefaced with a brief film montage on the back wall of famous Black dancers and by Yeman Brown reciting the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too.”
There is an “America” section, with half a dozen patriotic American songs (Yankee Doodle Dandy etc), sometimes with less than a patriotic tone (the ensemble dressed in black and looking somber), accompanied by projections of fireworks but also sometimes less than uplifting quotes from famous people (“‘America is a mistake, a giant mistake’ – Sigmund Freud” )
And there is an excerpt from/homage to “Big Deal,” a jukebox musical that Fosse wrote, directed and produced, which lasted just 69 performances on Broadway in 1986 — four years after “Dancin’” ended its Broadway run, and a year before Fosse’s death at the age of 60. Based on “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” an Italian film about a group of hapless would-be thieves, the excerpt includes some comic dialogue wrapped around musical numbers “Life is but A Bowl of Cherries,” “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar”
“Bob Fosse’s Dancin’” ends with one of the cast members impersonating Bob Fosse (the third to do so throughout the show, all of them women) talking about how exciting it is for a show to open on Broadway, but adds “maybe it’s phony show business, and god knows I’m anti-show business, but there is a kind of affection, where everybody is pushing for the same thing. I just don’t wanna let ’em down.”
Bob Fosse “anti-show business?! What could he possibly mean? In any case, it would probably take someone genuinely anti-show business to derive no enjoyment from any of the dancers in “Bob Fosse’s Dancin,’” yet one would need to be more blindly pro-show business than I am to stay entranced by every one of the show’s 120 minutes (plus intermission.) I’m not sure whether the problem is that the dances are not varied enough, or that the overall show is not structured artfully enough, so that one dance flows into the next. I especially enjoyed the three sensuous Pas de Deux in “Joint Endeavors” but who thought it made sense for this to lead directly to the brassy “America” section?
Such concerns disappear, though, when absorbed in the Fosse-fueled moments of ecstasy. I’m not sure what it says about me that the number that made me the most ecstatic was probably the most traditional song-and-dance number in the show, “I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man,” with all the dancers in straw hats doing high kicks.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’
Music Box Theater
Update: Dancin’ will close May 14
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $104-$278. digital or in-person rush, and digital lottery: $40
Direction and musical staging by Wayne Cilento,
Choreography by Bob Fosse; Reproduction of Mr. Fosse’s Choreography: Christine Colby Jacques; Additional Choreographic Reproduction: Corinne McFadden Herrera;
Scenic Design by Robert Brill; Costume Design by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung; Lighting Design by David Grill; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Video Design by Finn Ross; Hair and Wig Design by Ashley Wise; Make-Up Design by Suki Tsujimoto;
Cast: Ioana Alfonso, Yeman Brown, Peter John Chursin, Dylis Croman, Jōvan Dansberry, Karli Dinardo, Tony d’Alelio, Aydin Eyikan, Pedro Garza, Jacob Guzman, Manuel Herrera, Afra Hines, Gabriel Hyman, Kolton Krouse, Mattie Love, Krystal Mackie, Yani Marin, Nando Morland, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Ida Saki, Ron Todorowski, and Neka Zang.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes