Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bob Fosse at 80

Today would have been Bob Fosse's 80th birthday. The legendary Broadway and film director was born in Chicago on June 23, 1927, he died nearly 20 years ago, on September 23, 1987, while directing a revival of Sweet Charity at Washington's National Theatre. Fosse is the only director to receive an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony in the same year (in 1973 for, respectively, Cabaret, Liza with a 'Z," and Pippin).

In tribute to the great choreographer, here is a review of the Broadway revue, Fosse, from eight years ago (along with two other, unrelated shows).

The following article appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on April 30, 1999:

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

No matter how much time one spends in New York, as in London, there is never enough time available to see all the theatrical offerings there. If only every show were presented three times a day! If only human beings were able to bilocate! Alas, neither is possible. So we settle for what we can get, and sometimes we get less, sometimes we get more than we bargained for.

In a recent three-day trip to New York, I was able to see a musical revue, a musical play, and a straight play. One was new, one was a revival of a three-decade old work, and one was about sixteen months into what promisesto be a long run.

The new show is Fosse, at the Broadhurst Theatre, a three-act revue featuring the dances of legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse, who died in Washington in 1987 shortly after the opening of a revival of his Sweet Charity at the National Theatre. The show includes both singing and dancing, but the focus is, naturally, on the dancing itself.

Nearly every one of Fosse's significant works is included, from his movie days at MGM (Kiss Me, Kate) through his huge hits Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, and Pippin, through his flop of a swan song, Big Deal. Whether the best numbers were chosen is hard to say—I would have added "Magic to Do" from Pippin, for instance—but overall, the spirit and energy of Bob Fosse comes through.

For much of the performance, the dancers are garbed in Fosse's signature costume—slinky black leotards, black bowler hats, and fabrics that dance as much as they cling to the dancers who wear them. Fosse created a unique style of theatrical choreography, although it was clearly influenced by predecessors such as Michael Kidd and Gene Kelly, and he was able to pay tribute to others (like Gower Champion or Hermes Pan) with aplomb.

It is not easy to dance to Fosse's choreography. It requires the use of muscles that don't get much use in the average ballet class. Even someone with years of ballet, jazz, and tap training needs to retrain almost every part of the body to successfully do what Fosse wants done. That makes this show all the more remarkable, and explains why two intermissions are necessary in less than two hours—the material is simply exhausting!

Fortunately for the dancers and for the audiences, this show has the very best at the helm. The co-director and co-choreographer is Ann Reinking, Fosse's one-time girlfriend who starred in his semi-autobiographical movie, All That Jazz, and re-created his Chicago on Broadway to great acclaim two seasons ago. The artistic advisor is Gwen Verdon, Fosse's ex-wife and muse, who won Tony awards under Fosse's direction in Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, and Redhead, and who starred in the original cast of Chicago (the year it lost all the Tonys for which it was nominated to A Chorus Line, ironically a musical about dancers and dancing). The production is directed by Broadway veteran Richard Maltby, Jr., and choreographer Chet Walker, who conceived the idea of Fosse with Fosse in 1986, recreates the original choreography here.

Special mention should be made of Andrew Bridge's lighting design, which is best seen from the balcony. He plays wonderful games with the floor of the stage. And his design for the "Mr. Bojangles" number is irreplaceable. That song-and-dance combination is the emotional highlight of the evening.

The cast is uniformly excellent. (Bob Fosse would not have accepted anything less.) Valarie Pettiford can really belt any number handed to her. Jane Lanier carries on the Gwen Verdon legacy—and that of Shirley MacLaine and Carol Haney in "Steam Heat." Scott Wise and Alex Sanchez stand out on the male side, but that does not discount any of the others, who can be athletic, seductive, impish, and energetic.

For pure energy, nothing can match the final number of the show, a recreation of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," from the 1978 show, Dancin'. "Sing, Sing, Sing" leaves the audience breathless—what does it do to the cast?

Fosse is in an unlimited run at the Broadhurst Theatre, 44th Street west of Broadway. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:00PM; and Sundays, 3:00PM. For ticket information: Tele-charge, 212/239-6200 or 1-800-432-7250.

Like a fine wine, Ragtime gets better with age. Already reviewed favorably in The Metro Herald last July, Ragtime proves itself to be a multilayered musical play that offers more and more on each viewing.

The Tony®-winning story, adapted by Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same name, is about three families—one WASP, one black, one immigrant—shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. They interact with each other in unexpected ways. They encounter real historical figures, such as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P Morgan, Harry Houdini, and vaudeville sweetheart Evelyn Nesbit (mistress of architect Stanford White and wife of eccentric millionaire Harry Thaw).

To summarize like this is to reduce to almost nothing a profound work about the human condition, about human identity, about pride and respect and our place in the world around us.

The Tony-winning musical score, by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, is moving and sparkling and fun and tuneful. The direction by Frank Galati makes excellent use of the space created in the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts, which was built with Ragtime in mind. (The stage at National Theatre last year did not have, for instance, the twisting staircases on either side that the Ford Center features.) And Graciela Daniele's musical staging is impeccable.

One interesting bit of trivia: In the touring company of Ragtime that came to Washington last year, the role of Tateh was played by Michael Rupert, who in the 1970s played the title role in Pippin on tour. In the New York production of Ragtime, Tateh is currently being played by John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in Pippin in 1972.

The current cast also includes Alton Fitzgerald White in the lead role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who played in Washington and was interviewed by The Metro Herald last summer. He has grown into the role and controls his character and dominates the stage much better than he did in Washington—and he was no slacker on tour, either. Other carryovers from the national company that played here are Erick Devine as J. P. Morgan, and Rosena M. Hill in the ensemble. Go see Ragtime, even if it means you have to wait several weeks to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. You won't regret it.

Ragtime is in an unlimited run at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 43rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2:00PM; and Sundays, 3:00PM. For ticket information: Ticketmaster, 212/307-4550 or 1-800/755-4000.

The Lion in Winter
Just a quiet Christmas in the country with mom and dad and the kids. And dad's mistress, who is engaged to his eldest son. Mom, of course, is visiting from her own home, a dungeon where dad has kept her for the past ten years. What could be more typical?

Thus begins The Lion in Winter, James Goldman's 1966 play about the family of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, later made into an Oscar®-winning movie starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn and featuring Sir Anthony Hopkins' film debut. (Another bit of trivia: O'Toole played Henry II twice on film; the earlier portrayal was as a younger Henry in Jean Anouilh's Becket with Richard Burton in the title role. Have any other actors played two different characters based on the same historical figure?)

In this revival at the Roundabout Theatre Company, Tony winners Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing play the royal spouses at each other's throats. Both deliver powerful performances with the support of a generally strong supporting cast. (Two weak, but not debilitating, links are Emily Bergl as Alais, the mistress, and Roger Howarth as Philip, the King of France.)

The Lion in Winter is considered a drama, but it has genuine comic moments as well, some springing from otherwise jarring anachronisms. For instance, when son John is startled by his brother Richard's wielding of a knife, Eleanor retorts: "Of course he has a knife. We all have knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians!"

The story is this: Henry is 50 years old, older than any man he knows. He has conquered half of France as well as Scotland and Ireland. He wants assurance that his kingdom will remain intact after he dies. He does not want to see it split up among his three sons. (Another son, Henry the King, the Young King, was crowned while his father was still alive, but died before reaching maturity.) Henry favors the youngest, John (Keith Nobbs), while Eleanor—who besides being Henry's wife was once the wife of the King of France and is also Europe's richest woman—favors the eldest, Richard (Chuma Hunter-Gault). Forgotten in this mess—as in so many other family dramas—is the middle child, Geoffrey. Historically, of course, both Richard and John went on to become King of England, making Eleanor of Aquitaine unique in European history as the wife of two kings and the mother of two others.

Complicating the situation is Alais, who was betrothed to Richard at an early age by her father, King Louis of France (Eleanor's ex-husband), but who since the age of 16 has been Henry's mistress. Henry, meanwhile, wants to abrogate the betrothal so that Alais can marry John and become his queen. Alais's brother, King Philip — visiting for Christmas — insists that breaking the engagement must incur the return of Alais's dowry, a strategic county near Paris that Henry treasures.

Just a typical family Christmas, right? Aaron Spelling, call your office.

Laurence Fishburne is magnificent as Henry. He carries himself regally and confidently. He dominates the stage even if he cannot dominate his wife. One weakness in his performance is that he does not seem like the "old man" he is supposed to be—he is simply too vigorous. Still, this explains his randiness as well as his impetuousness. What is not explained—and this is the fault of the playwright, not the actor—is why a strong king like Henry would favor the weakling John as his heir, instead of the strongminded warrior Richard, who not for nothing was called "the Lionheart."

Stockard Channing is Fishburne's equal in every way, except one. While Fishburne makes Henry's character his own, with no echoes of Robert Preston (who originated the role on Broadway) or O'Toole, Channing too often seems to be imitating Hepburn. Her voice quavers like Hepburn's; even her intonation and inflection are similar.

Nonetheless, Channing is strongwilled and amusing as the tempestuous Eleanor. She is particularly on target in a private meeting with Alais, which might serve as a model for a rendezvous between Hillary and Monica. Channing gives us a winning portrayal.

Hunter-Gault makes a brooding, proud Richard, and Nobbs is a simpering, greasy, revolting John — exactly as he should be. Meanwhile, Neal Huff shows Geoffrey to be a conniving middle son, willing to play each side off against the other. His plainness, which might explain why he has been ignored by his parents for so many years, also allows a cover for his cunning.

The Lion in Winter is a great drama in a terrific revival. The direction by Michael Mayer is meticulous, and the set design by David Gallo—featuring a curtain made of chain mail—is darkly striking, complemented boldly by Kenneth Posner's lighting design. Expect this play to reap many awards.

The Lion in Winter continues through May 30 at the Stage Right Theatre at the Criterion Center, 1530 Broadway at 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8:00PM; Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 2:00PM; with special Sunday performances on May 2 and May 9, 7:30PM; and special 7:00PM performances May 11-14. For ticket information: Ticket Services, 212/719-1300.

Some additional comments on New York theatre: Ticket prices are high. I paid $60 for a Saturday matinee performance of The Lion in Winter (although because the Stage Right Theatre is so small, there is not a bad seat in the house, and I was in the fourth row). For Ragtime, orchestra seats were $80, and for Fosse, the face value of the mezzanine tickets was also $80.

Unfortunately, I bought the Fosse tickets through a ticket broker in my hotel, so the total per ticket was $128 with the broker's markup. For the casual customer, it is best to go to TKTS, north of Times Square, behind the statues of George M. Cohan and Father Duffy. Half-price, day-of-performance tickets are available there, but the hottest shows in town are not likely to be there.

What are the hot tickets now? The answer is easy — Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy, which plays through May 30 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre; Cabaret, playing at Studio 54 through September 26; and The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, transferred from London to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. (If you can get tickets for any of those shows, let me know, and I'll be there.)

As expensive as Broadway tickets are, it is important for us to recognize how truly wonderful the Washington theatre scene is. We have excellent local professional theatre at the Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Studio Theatre. Two of Broadway's current hit musicals — Annie Get Your Gun and Footloose — recently played Washington on their way to New York. Consistently high quality can also be found at the Woolly Mammoth, Source Theatre, and numerous smaller theatres throughout the metropolitan area. We should appreciate what we have. Not only do we have high quality, we have low prices, too. Be grateful.

For historical accuracy, I should note that the "unlimited" run of Fosse closed on August 25, 2001, after 1,093 performances, and that of Ragtime closed on January 16, 2000, after 834 performances. Fosse went on to win Tony awards for best musical, best lighting design, and best orchestrations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gwen Verdon was NOT Bob Fosse's ex-wife - They were always married.