The thrills of the revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ on Broadway (Music Box Theatre, booking to September 17) are many, and pulsatingly beautiful to behold. There is, principally, the mesmerizing dancing of the 16-strong cast (one was absent from the performance this critic attended), and around them all that accentuates their physicality: Robert Brill’s simple design of scaffolds and descending curtains, Reid Bartleme and Harriet Jung’s sexy, playful costuming, David Grill’s lighting (bulbs of all colors flashing, spotlight beams, bright color baths for backgrounds), and Finn Ross’ video design.
Wayne Cilento’s direction and staging throbs with razzmatazz, but also mischief and subtlety. Cilento danced in the original production, and is aided in his efforts to hew close to, and respectfully tweak, Fosse’s choreographic and creative template by Christine Colby Jacques.
Dancin’ is mostly spectacular, until it suddenly isn’t—before ramping itself up again for the finale. An audience member behind me whooped through the first act and into the bravura first number of the second. And then their whoops hushed as the show dialed itself down. The difference in energy, not just on stage but in the theater, was stark; it was as if someone had stuck a pin in a balloon.
Dancin’ is clear in its intentions from the outset, performer Manuel Herrera telling us that the “CDC, the AMA, the FDA, the World Health Organization, and the Surgeon General have determined that the viewing of too many musical comedies with sentimental and over romantic plots may cause serious and sometimes incurable damage to the playgoer and the critics’ standards. Therefore, what you are about to see is an almost plotless musical. Boy might meet girl, boy might lose girl, they might meet them, boy’s new boyfriend might help girl get girl back, but there will be no villains tonight, no baritone heroes, no orphanages, no Christmas trees, no messages. What you will see is dancin’… dancin’… some singin’…and more dancin’.”
Dancin’ is a revue, a kind of dance pick ‘n’ mix, some elements of which are conventionally spectacular firework displays in human form, and others short and sharp. Like many revues, it is good and bad, a little all over the place. The dancers are laser-focused, the material is more randomized.
The dancers are of different ages (from 19 to 45), and have different kinds of bodies. Occasionally we hear Fosse’s voice (either his own or channeled through the performers). “Recollection of an Old Dancer” is a potted history of Black dance, featuring Jacob Guzman, Yeman Brown, and Manuel Herrera. It underlines that the show is many things: a celebration, education, memoir, and manifesto of what Fosse believed dance was and what his intentions were as its all-conquering avatar.
By the time of Dancin’ in 1978, Fosse had directed and choreographed on stage The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Chicago—up to that date winning seven Tony Awards for choreography and direction (he would win another for Best Choreography for Dancin’). He had also directed the movies of Sweet Charity, Cabaret (for which he won an Oscar) and Lenny. In 1979, he would direct All That Jazz. Cilento recently told the New York Times that Fosse “wanted to do a show where he had absolutely nothing pinning him down to anything specific, like a story. He wanted to do any kind of dance he wanted and to just be free.”
This the show succeeds in stunningly. Its displays of movement are both beautiful and meaningful. There is such pleasure being taken and expressed in these bodies, a sense of play and self-discovery as rich as any conventional drama or musical. As polished as the numbers are, around their edges is a feeling of experimentation, of things being tried out in studios, of ideas blooming into sequences like “Big Noise from Winnetka” featuring Pedro Garza (standing in for Tony d’Alelio), Mattie Love, and Nando Morland).
It is a treat watching a number build from what seems like nothing—hands slapping against a knee—to all-out spectacular. We first see this in the coalescing euphoria of “Percussion,” featuring the company. Musical fans can expect to see material added from Pippin, Sweet Charity, and Liza with a Z, as well as Fosse’s final show, Big Deal—a sequence which sadly adds to the slight buzzkill of the second act.
Still, another routine, “Big City Mime,” cut from the original show, is an act one storm of energy and invention, following out-of-towner Cyril (Peter John Chursin) on his journey through New York, with the neon signs for strip parlors zooming in and out of view; Chursin is the awkward naif transformed, by the end, into the city slicker. Throughout his urban odyssey, individual tableaux give other dancers, including the brilliant Dylis Croman and Herrera, breakout moments to shine. And then there is the phenomenal Kolton Krouse whose number “Spring Chicken” is one of the fiercest displays and celebrations of physicality of the evening.
The second act begins in the same high-octane spirit, with the gold-hued “Sing, Sing, Sing,” with the dancers chaneling the musical characters of trombone, trumpet, clarinet, and piano. Then the show takes its subdued detour (which maybe editing the show in a different way might resolve), with a gently spiky deconstruction of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” and a very of-its-era bit called “Joint Endeavors,” where puffs of stage smoke issue forth to underline the meaning. The multi-stranded “America” questions the country’s fondness of war, as well as its politics and racism, while celebrating the nation too. It is not that the choreography in this second half is lacking; the show just suddenly feels very different, and leaked of red-hot excitement. “Big Deal” continues this low simmer, with Khori Michelle Petinaud delivering a wow of a belter with her rendition of “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”
We hear from Fosse again at the end of Dancin’. “There’s nothing as exciting as when a show goes into rehearsal and then opens on Broadway. I love it. I think I have a dreadful fear within myself that there’s a great streak of mediocrity in me and a great streak of laziness. Some people have said that I’m my own worst critic, but they’re wrong.” For Fosse, it “is the people that you fall in love with on a show, the actors, you have this camaraderie with, and maybe it’s phony showbusiness, and god knows I’m anti-showbusiness, but there is a kind of affection, where everybody is pushing for the same thing…”
To that end, Dancin’ closes with the best bows on Broadway. The company of dancers is often the unsung heart of musical productions. Here, the dancers are not just center stage, but they are also named in big letters as they come out individually to bow. It is a professionally and emotionally apposite way for Dancin’ to end—not just celebrating Fosse’s passion, but also those who bring it so vividly alive on stage.
So, even with that second act puzzle, do go see: Ioana Alfonso, Yeman Brown, Peter John Chursin, Dylis Croman, Tony d’Alelio, Jōvan Dansberry, Karli Dinardo, 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.
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