From the deep archives: Bob Fosse’s DANCIN’

March 16, 2023

I could have sworn that I wrote a feature article about the lighting for Bob Fosse’s 1978 show Dancin’ (now in revival on Broadway) at the time of the first national tour. My memory of the show is that it was mildly entertaining with a sizzling show-stopping act three number set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I looked high and low among my far-flung archives, and the only thing I found was my review of the pre-Broadway tryout for the Phoenix, which was…well, the headline was “Throwin’ the night away,” and the subhed was “Fosse shoulda known better.”

DANCIN’, a musical entertainment directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Music and lyrics by various artists. Scenery by Peter Larkin. Costumes by Willa Kim. Lighting by Jules Fisher. At the Colonial Theater through March 11.

Almost every musical Bob Fosse has directed since Sweet Charity has been praised for its staging and criticized for its book. But the script to Dancin’ is no more than a pamphlet; the only “book” involved is the one that should be thrown at Fosse for turning a potentially spectacular, all-dance Broadway show into a lame-brained revue studded with sleazy sex-skits — Hellzapoppin’ with humpin’.

Everything about Dancin’ sounds great. Sixteen top dancers in a celebration of show biz set to the music of composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Edgard Varèse to Cat Stevens, with choreography from Bob Fosse’s famous grab-bag of styles? One imagines — with considerable excitement — some combination of A Chorus Line‘s shameless high-stepping, Twyla Tharp’s fractured boogie, the Joffrey’s hybrid of classical technique and pop ballet, and Pippin‘s non-stop theatricality. And at its very best, Dancin’ lives up to such feverish expectations. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which kicks off the last of three short acts and is set to the swing era classic, is a show-stopping blaze of precision ensemble dancing punctuated by an audaciously delicate tap duet; a loose-limbed, slump-shouldered trio; and the obligatory electrifying solo by Ann Reinking, who has several leaps during which she seems to hover in mid-air and then lurch to the stage as if from Mars. “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the kind of dance number that keeps you on the edge of your seat, completely enthralled.

Unfortunately, I spent much of the rest of Dancin’ cringing into the Colonial’s plush cushions. Apparently, Fosse got nervous about presenting an entire evening of dance and felt obliged to tell some stories. So he wrote some. They include “Welcome to the Big City,” in which a middle-aged rube visiting New York for the first time is harassed by hookers, masturbated by masseuses, groped by salesgirls, and mesmerized by strippers before being mugged and left lying in the street; “The Dream Barre,” in which a homely ballet student fantasizes that he is fucking the female student next to him as the dancer instructor counts time; and “Joint Endeavor,” in which three men and three women smoke pot and trade partners in a series of solemn, semi-pornographic pas de deux while several leather-coated figures stand around singing sinister versions of Melissa Manchester songs. I wish I could shrug off these sketches as outtakes from an as-yet-unfinished Fosse vehicle called Let My Danskins Come (or, You Gotta Have a Hard-on), but I can’t — they’re really offensive. Atrociously written, they have nothing to do with dancing and are appallingly sexist. (Thanks to Fosse’s surprisingly limited sexual imagination, several of Broadway’s finest female dancers spend endless stage time flat on their backs; thanks to Fosse’s dishonesty, this is a show about dancers that refuses to acknowledge some of them are gay.)

Then there is the show’s finale, in which Fosse abruptly takes his hand out of his pants and places it over his heart for an astonishing salute to America called “Yankee Doodle.” The cast members sing and dance to a medley of patriotic songs and some of them have lines to say, such as “American women — boy, they are really something!” and “It might be corny and unsophisticated, but I’m proud to say that I’m an American.” This segment is not convincing (it is pseudo-patriotic in the same way that “Welcome to the Big City” is pseudo-cynical), nor is it satirical — or meant to be. Perhaps scene designer Peter Larkin simply wanted to create a huge eagle to fly in and flap its wings. Or perhaps Fosse really has deceived himself into thinking this is what a Broadway audience wants at the end of the show. How sad.

There is surprisingly little in Dancin’ that falls between the very good (the opening of each act) and the very bad. The show’s flaws could be eliminated by a few drastic measures: 1) cut out any and all dialogue; 2) delete all of the imitation Oh! Calcutta! sequences and 3) replace the raggedly performed live music with recordings. That would leave a short but stunning two-act musical, instead of a blot on the career of a choreographer with more talent than brains.

Oddly enough, the choreography in Dancin’ very rarely draws on the slinky, turned-in style most associated with Fosse; there is plenty of crotch-bumping and ass-shaking, but it is more rhythmic and less menacing, partly because of the different musical styles. Some of the songs could be better chosen. Edgard Varèse is just not very interesting to dance to, and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is too obvious. Predictably, Fosse seems happier with the jazzy material; “Big Noise from Winettka” inspires a nifty trio, and the previously mentioned “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the show’s highlight. The dancers are invariably superb, though Ann Reinking is deservedly the unspoken star. It does, however, seem a little unfair that she gets all but one of the female solos; René Ceballos, who projects all the best qualities of a circus showgirl, deserves to be seen more. Wayne Cilento is outstanding, and Blane Savage and Charles Ward, both unusually large and athletic dancers, work together often and splendidly.

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