Choreography by Bob Fosse
Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Ann Reinking
Pantages Theatre, Toronto, June 19-24;
Ford Center, Chicago, July 10-28

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Fosse, the award-winning musical tribute to the late-great Broadway choreographer and director shows us exactly why he is revered and copied and memorialized with such elaboration.

The evening is loose in structure. Programme notes explain what the segues mean and why snippets of song are interposed between the more substantial set pieces, but the shape is more scattered in appearance than these notes would imply. The evening's value is clearly in the numbers that are self-contained, showing the Fosse style at its sexiest best. And by extension, this means that the stage must be filled with dancers sinewy, sweaty and lithe. The current SFX Theatrical Group company has the dancers to meet the demand.

If Fosse didn't invent the pelvic thrust, splayed fingers and legs twisted into macaroni shapes that exude sex, he certainly took them as his own. And he didn't stop there. He insisted that every beat in every bar be acknowledged with some body response -- nerve ends twitching, thighs pulsing, elbows flicking -- and he also respected a degree of subtlety not usually part of the Broadway dance vocabulary. In Big Spender, his anthem to tawdry teasing, the lineup of dance hall girls moves with amazing restraint. Instead of having them twist or writhe, Fosse locks them into positions of exhaustion and boredom as they create tableaux both humorous and provocative. Other choreographers would never dare to keep dancers in a single position for so long, but Fosse holds the moment longer than we can anticipate and, in the process, creates a tension that extends the dance into drama. Maybe that's one of the reasons he has yet to be surpassed. (Susan Stroman, the multi award-winning choreographer, and now also director, never stops moving her dancers with the result that, for all her invention, exhaustion often sets in before the final button.)

No one would argue against the case that Bob Fosse is one of the most important influences on the Broadway musical.

As for this musical that celebrates his work, there is much to enjoy and a lot to admire. The overall effect, however, is less than dazzling and, as it nears the end of its two-and-a-half-hours, oddly ordinary. The truth is that Fosse's signature is so identifiable that no extended illustration is required to showcase the man's brilliance. What Richard Maltby, Jr., Chet Walker and Ann Reinking have done in conceiving the package is to over-extend the demonstration. The adage "less is more," as hackneyed as it is, would serve the performers and audience far better than the more fitting, "sometimes more is just more."

The ensemble is gifted and not a single cast member stands out from the rest. This is probably a good thing, given the fact that Fosse dedicated himself to the ensemble. (We'll leave Gwen Verdon out of this discussion.) And looking over the range of the work that had Fosse's name writ large, the strengths were always the ensemble. Even the star-studded shows boasted more from the dancers' bodies that he controlled than the celebrities he could attract.

And the choreography itself? This is where the discussion gets more interesting, because there is good cause to argue that Fosse was best when designing set pieces -- Steam Heat, Big Spender and Rich Man's Frug -- and somewhere less exalted when imagining Mr. Bojangles, Take Off With Us or Sing, Sing, Sing. The fact is that no one has ever used and manipulated the body for Broadway as Fosse did. The truth, too, is that his choreography is likely to be less frequently reproduced than the work of others such as DeMille, Robbins and even Michael Kidd.

The current state of show dancing is so lacking in drive and invention, that a tribute and re-staging like this reminds us that there was a time when a man could dedicate himself to perfecting his craft and his art.

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