Right from the start, we’re advised that “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’,” which opened on Sunday at the Music Box Theater, will be “almost plotless” and include “no messages.”
Is that a challenge or an apology?
In the often-thrilling, often-frustrating revival of the 1978 dancical, which reincarnates the spirit and choreography of Bob Fosse, the two possibilities are much the same. Substantially revamped and restaged by Wayne Cilento, a standout in the original production, this “Dancin’” argues that Fosse’s genius was constrained by the pedestrian storytelling of musical theater, with its “villains,” “baritone heroes” and “Christmas trees.” True Fosseism, it seems, can fully thrive only in the abstract, Olympian realms of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
The dichotomy is false, and the insistence a little embarrassing; when judged only as a brief for that point, “Dancin’” stumbles. Particularly in a long concluding section drawn from his final musical, “Big Deal,” the new material meant to bolster Fosse’s reputation doesn’t. And the periodic intrusion of ax-grinding Fosse avatars, quoting him at his most maudlin, suggests an inferiority complex not only about his talent but also about the kind of storytelling, in shows like “Chicago,” and movies like “Cabaret,” for which he was best known and deeply admired.
But in the spirit of plotlessness and nonmessaging, let me not argue that too much. The show is a joy every time it puts down its ax. In any case, its 16 dancers, representing a wider range by age, ethnicity, body type and gender presentation than you typically see in a Fosse cast, make a much better case for the pure dance qualities of his style than the text does. (Kirsten Childs, herself a former Fosse dancer, provided the additional material.) A wiggle is worth a thousand words.
That wiggle — of the fingers, of the hips — joins the familiar Fosse vocabulary here: the isolated shoulder rotations, the off-center jumps, the pelvic contractions that look as if the dancer is being hit in the stomach with a cannonball. But in a context mostly stripped of overt story, the movements feel more extreme, and even overexuberant, as if let loose from jail: not just high kicks but kicks so high the shins bang the face.
The first number after the opening sequence, a holdover from 1978, is in fact set in jail. “Recollections of an Old Dancer,” built on the Jerry Jeff Walker tune “Mr. Bojangles,” seems to be about the foundational legacy of Black dance in American culture, as the spirit of Bill Robinson shares his moves with a prisoner. I say “seems” because the effort to reframe numbers like this one as plotless when they clearly aren’t sometimes renders them merely murky, no matter how good the dancing. (It’s excellent.)
The persistence of story is even more noticeable in the sequences that are new, newish or substantially altered. They make up perhaps half of the revival’s 14 numbers.
“Big City Mime,” the 21-minute centerpiece of Act I, is one of the newish ones. Cut in Boston in 1978, it has been recreated from Fosse’s written scenario and snippets of his choreography for other works. The scenario is an exaggerated Fosse autobiography in dance, depositing a wide-eyed rube — the curly haired, lean-lined Peter John Chursin — in a modern-day Sodom. After encounters with prostitutes, masseuses and a naughty bookstore clerk, he emerges from his urban initiation ready to embrace the lessons of the body.
Those lessons reach a sublime climax in the Act I finale, “Dancin’ Man,” the first time (and, until the curtain call, the last time) we see a unison number for the full ensemble. Dressed identically in pale blue suits, bow ties and straw hats, the dancers synchronize blissfully with the music (a soft-shoe tune by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer) and with one another.
But Act II, even leaving aside the “Big Deal” letdown, is a bumpier ride once you get past its astonishing opening: “Sing, Sing, Sing,” built on the Louis Prima number made famous by Benny Goodman. “The Female Star Spot,” a weak feminist comedy sketch in which singers question the woman-as-doormat lyrics of the 1977 Dolly Parton hit “Here You Come Again,” immediately lets the dance energy out of the room.
A bit later, a long sequence set to a medley of patriotic songs, updated to include quotes from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Amanda Gorman — and to remove the objectionable “Dixie,” which was part of the original — suffers from the grim feeling that it’s stepping around land mines.
Though many of the interstitial numbers are entirely successful — and the hot arrangements by Jim Abbott for a 14-person band are ceaselessly exciting — they cannot always compensate for the larger missteps. The drama doesn’t accumulate, as it does in a musical, making “Dancin’” more like a variety show with guest stars. The design, too, is deliberately more presentational than theatrical, with arena lighting (by David Grill), a 49-by-28-foot LED wall (video design by Finn Ross) and four three-story towers (by Robert Brill) engaged in a kind of choreography themselves.
But it’s the costumes, by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, a team known mostly for its work with ballet companies, that slip the leash of narrative most successfully. Strappy crop tops with strategic cutouts and peekaboo panels are perhaps to be expected in a Fosse show. But did I really see bumblebees, beekeepers, knights in body-baring armor, a sexy chicken with backup roosters and clowns with chartreuse polka-dot pussy bows?
Happily, even airy whimsy cannot suppress the dancers’ specificity. If we do not know the story, they certainly do. Your favorites may depend on the night you see it (six understudies are part of the company as well) but of the 16 I saw on Friday I can highlight, aside from Chursin, Dylis Croman for her humor, Yeman Brown for his poetry, Jacob Guzman for his ferocity, Ron Todorowski for his athleticism, Manuel Herrera for his poignancy and Kolton Krouse for, well, their everything. (Krouse is the one with the face-slapping kicks.)
If that list seems male dominated, so is “Dancin’,” despite its new sprinkling of gay, lesbian and nonbinary content. Fosse, after all, was creating in his own image, whether rendering himself as a satyr, a sot or a snake. Absent a text that makes a woman the star, he makes himself one, over and over. He was an interesting guy, so it’s an interesting story.
Ah, but there’s that word “story” again. To me it seems that Fosse, however limited he may have felt by the specificities of musical theater, was best when working at the place where pure movement is pulled down from Olympus to meet real people, with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. It’s there (and in so much of “Dancin’”) that he reliably finds what passes, despite all warnings, for a message: the necessity of sharing the body’s expressiveness and its endless capacity for pleasure.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’
At the Music Box Theater, Manhattan; dancinbway.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
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