The gesture is called teacup hands, or fingers depending on who you ask. Thumb and forefinger lightly pressing the rim of a bowler, other fingers spread upward. It's arguably the most recognizable of the late Bob Fosse's extensive vocabulary of choreography. The simple yet bold look pops up repeatedly in "Fosse", the Tony Award-winning show that combines numbers from musicals, film, and television to celebrate his distinctive style. SFX Theatrical Group's touring company, at Cincinnati's Aronoff Center under the auspices of the Broadway Series, shows off more than jaunty poses. The production invokes the grace and athleticism, the sweet as well as sultry in individual showcases and unified ensembles to driving rhythms and soothing melodies. The unexpected is as compelling as the expected is dynamic.
Many of the numbers in "Fosse" come from the 1978 bookless musical "Dancin'". One is a highlight of the evening, set to Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles". Cassel Miles shuffles into his spotlight, stooped in patched pants, loose vest, and a bowler hat. He looks like a hobo. As Josef Patrick Pescetto wistfully sings, Miles attempts the click of the heels and the stretch of the dance even if the muscles won't allow him to perform it any more. But not far away, the spirit of a lithe, younger Bojangles, played by Terace Jones, remembers the steps as a strong, graceful shadow in a respectful duet of aging. It's a memorable, gentle scene of movement matching character and music to tell a poignant story.
In the first act, Jones performs another "Dancin'" number, a solo titled "Percussion 4" to music by G. Harrell. The piece foreshadows the industrial-strength dance of "Tap Dogs" as Jones, without taps, responds to the percussion beats and lines. Extended like the wings of an eagle, his long, well-toned arms almost seem detached from his body, their movement is so controlled. The ballet challenges and celebrates the body and the beat.
Slow, sexy precision marks the brief but intense "Take Off with Us - Three Pas de Deux" from the film "All That Jazz". Simultaneously, three pairs of powerful bodies, barely dressed, perform different intimate moves. The dimly lit scene dissolves like a dream between the livelier, faster numbers that largely make up the evening.
The impression of Fosse as a ballet and modern dance choreographer, in addition to a musical theatre choreographer, comes primarily from Ann Reinking's staging of movement medleys. They artfully weave together dance elements inspired by his movie or theatre work, demonstrating the range and beauty of his vision.
The live orchestra, especially the searing trumpets, drives the energetic numbers with punch and pizzazz to complement the movement. Led by Don York, they slow things down with sweeping lyricism in other pieces. Andrew Bridge's lighting, especially overhead spots, shapes shadow to further enhance the mood.
As piece follows piece in "Fosse", which is organized into six loosely stylistic or thematic parts, the gestures, attitudes, and configurations keep stacking up. Directors Richard Maltby Jr. and Reinking crafted the show well, making it nearly seamless thanks to musical transitions in which performers pass one another in character. Moods alternate, so there's time to cool down after a particularly sultry or bold number. In the second act only, the show risks repetition and overload. While the ensemble is solid in both singing and dancing, sometimes yet-another number with three people rolling their shoulders, bowing their heads, and slinking across stage together seems extraneous. Too much of a good thing is still too much.
One of the most amusing trio pieces is "Steam Heat", from "The Pajama Game", with Meg Gillentine, Tyler Hanes, and Mark Swanhart as Chaplinesque steam pipes, popping and hissing as they bob in unison. Other crowd pleasers include "Big Spender" from "Sweet Charity", with the dancers oozing ennui as they drape their bodies every which way over the bar, and "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man". This tribute to Fred Astaire crescendoes from hushed soft-shoe to what sounds like a storm of tap dancing. But it's hands, not feet, that beat. Watching and hearing the white gloves slapping thighs and palms and pockets in tap rhythms is stunning.
"Fosse" may not have a storyline or consistent characters. It may not star Gwen Verdon (who served as artistic advisor) and Ann Reinking. But Chet Walker has recreated the choreography, and for those of us not fortunate enough to have seen original productions of his work, the touring show teaches us the visual vocabulary and the emotional repertoire of a significant part of American musical theatre. And it keeps Fosse's style and passion current in the muscles and hearts of the twenty-eight performers.
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