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Theater Review

Paying Homage the Best Way Hoofers Can

Like its namesake, 'Fosse' has the right moves.

October 23, 1998|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do you wanna have fun? Howza 'bout a good time? Hey, Big Spenduh. Speeh-eeh-eend a little time with . . . Bob Fosse.

Yes, folks, it's the guy who put the sssssizzle in "Steam Heat." The man who practically invented razzle-dazzle. The sultan of sexy Broadway saltation, presumed to be the model for the Don Juan-on-Dexedrine in his own film "All That Jazz."

Welcome back, Bob Fosse! You may have been in hoofer heaven/hell for 11 years now, but your snazzy steps are alive and kicking--and prancing and slithering and popping too. Not just in the hit revival of "Chicago," but now in "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance."

The Livent show, which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday en route to Broadway, is one big, fat Valentine to you, Bob. And if you still think, as a character in one of your shows once said, that "you have to be dead to find out if you were any good"--well, here's your answer.

Directed by Richard Maltby Jr., co-choreographed and co-directed by former Fosse girlfriend Ann Reinking, with Fosse widow and longtime creative partner Gwen Verdon serving as artistic advisor, "Fosse" is a loving homage to a legend put together by people who know their stuff and how to strut it. It's Livent-lavish, with a live orchestra and a milieu that evokes the choreographer's '70s heyday. But the glitter and glitz is never so thick that it smothers the work that wears its heart on its arm, just like Charity Hope Valentine.

To be sure, it'd be tough for any revue to pack the wallop of one of Fosse's greatest works all by itself--"Chicago," "Sweet Charity" or the film of "Cabaret." But "Fosse" comes respectably close, with a slick and entertaining survey tailor-made for anyone who missed the renowned showman's act when it was playing live.

Fosse was one of those archly American success stories. He got his start tap-dancing in Chicago strip joints when he was a teenager and first broke through as an actor-dancer. But it's as a choreographer-director that he really hit his mark, with a string of Broadway hits including "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Redhead" and "Pippin." He won eight Tonys and became the first to sweep entertainment's triple crown: a Tony for "Pippin," an Emmy for "Liza With a Z" and an Oscar for "Cabaret."

Along the way, he developed a populist choreographic style--rooted in those Chicago clubs--that's urban, angular and sensual. It has a distinctive vocabulary: splayed fingers, knock knees, sliding scooch steps, shimmying shoulders hunched forward, pelvic thrusts and the snap of a bowler hat. You know Fosse style when you see it, and you see its shadow all the time today--in everything from dinner theater to television ads and MTV to show biz award shows.

"Fosse" captures this style and its development through an array of selections, both early and late. It includes the choreographer's greatest hits from the stage, such as the "Big Spender" number from "Sweet Charity" and the "Steam Heat" trio from "The Pajama Game." These are some of the numbers that work best in "Fosse," because they show what made Fosse Fosse, and what made Fosse's dance theater. Here we see his genius for telegraphing character and emotion with the flick of a wrist and the cock of a hip.

"Fosse" also draws heavily on the revue that Fosse himself put together, 1978's "Dancin'. " And a number from that show, Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," is the electric finale here--providing a glimpse of Fosse as the showman extraordinaire who could assemble a large cast of dancers onstage and yet manage to individuate every one of them.

If there are a few moments when "Fosse" stumbles, it's in those sections where dances have been so far removed from context as to render their theatricality null, such as in the snippet of "Take Off With Us," from "All That Jazz." In the film, this is a racy and clever salute to the Mile High Club. Here it's simply an abstract choreography of three couples coupling--and not a particularly innovative or convincing one at that.

Still, the caliber of dancing here is so high that the lows are few. The ensemble is distinctive and varied, yet uniformly impressive when it comes to technique. It seems contrary to the spirit of the thing to mention standouts, but you cannot help but be mesmerized by Valarie Pettiford and Desmond Richardson. The former is a dancer-singer with incredible magnetism. And Richardson, an American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, makes Fosse uniquely electric by infusing the moves with balletic technique.

* "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance," Ahmanson Theatre, L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. (Also Nov. 12, 19 and Dec. 3, 2 p.m.; Nov. 23, 8 p.m.) Ends Dec. 6. $22.50-$65. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Starring: Valarie Pettiford, Jane Lanier.

Featuring: Eugene Fleming, Desmond Richardson, Sergio Trujillo, Kim Morgan Greene, Mary Ann Lamb, Dana Moore, Elizabeth Parkinson, Reva Rice and Scott Wise.

With Julio Agustin, Brad Anderson, Mark Arvin, Andy Blankenbuehler, Bill Burns, Marc Calamia, Holly Cruikshank, Lisa Gajda, Scott Jovovich, Christopher R. Kirby, Dede LaBarre, Susan Lamontagne, Deborah Leamy, Shannon Lewis, Mary MacLeod, Brad Musgrove, Sean Gregory Palmer, Michael Paternostro, Rachelle Rak, Mark C. Reis, Josh Rhodes, Lainie Sakakura, Alex Sanchez, Tracy Terstriep, J. Kathleen Watkins, Christopher Windom.

A Livent production. Conceived by Richard Maltby Jr., Chet Walker and Ann Reinking. Directed by Maltby. Fosse's choreography re-created by Walker. Co-directed and co-choreographed by Reinking. Artistic advisor: Gwen Verdon. Set and costumes by Santo Loquasto. Lighting by Andrew Bridge. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Orchestrations by Ralph Burns and Douglas Besterman.

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