Son of Burlesque

Flashy Fosse revue proves to be mainly gas, little sass.

Fosse Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through February 27


Fosse does little to elevate the work of the man it memorializes.
Fosse does little to elevate the work of the man it memorializes.
In the annual Friars' Roast staged in Hades, the late Bob Fosse undoubtedly still provides the entertainment. His choreography is all suggestive of the cunning serpent, spreading desire under the apple tree in the Garden of Eden (think Joel Grey's Cabaret emcee flicking a poisonous tongue or Gwen Verdon's Lola slithering out of her lace undergarments in Damn Yankees).

Fosse's fabled spangled raunchiness was born out of a childhood spent under the tutelage of a gaggle of G-string stripper nannies, including his own mother. His most characteristic work is a legacy of temptation and seduction. Thirteen years after his death, he remains one of Broadway's most enduring stylists.

His style was always unrelentingly audacious. In his film All That Jazz (1979), he created the ultimate act of musical comedy nihilism when he staged his alter ego's death during heart surgery (eight years before the real thing) as a telethon production number. A smirking Ben Vereen doing a Sammy Davis Jr. bit was a hip Death playing Master of Ceremonies. Voluptuously feathered chorus girls enacted the furies doing a fan dance to "Who's Sorry Now?"

Above ground, Fosse, the relentless narcissist and cynic, was able to project his demise as a chilling, tired businessman's wet dream. Now that he's six feet under and can't sue, bits and pieces of the great man's life's work have been shoved into a retrospective that gives the unfortunate impression of all flash and no substance.

In the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so, in a famished Broadway landscape, this revue, which makes it appear that Fosse spent the decades whipping up floor shows for Caesar's Palace, won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Former girlfriend and keeper of the flame Ann Reinking was crowned the Queen of Fossedom for her elegantly pared-down version of his "Chicago." Here, along with co-director Richard Maltby Jr., she pours out a flask of press-kit banana oil, claiming this musical adheres to neither a chronological nor biographical approach: "We mixed and matched pieces to create a particular pace, a musicality and a cadence, to make sure that neither dancers nor audience becomes exhausted."

This is the rationalization for what is the equivalent of Egyptian tomb robbery. The works have been looted and plundered and haphazardly placed to make Fosse's innovations (knees turned in, fingers spread out, explosive pelvic thrusts) seem like so many clichés. Too many generic variety-show bump-and-grind routines made for Bob Hope and Liza Minnelli specials fail to highlight Fosse's range of storytelling skills. Out of context, his "All That Jazz" death fantasy loses its bite. Without stirring personalities to replace Minnelli, Gwen Verdon, or Chita Rivera, and without a sense of character or situation, the show becomes a That's Entertainment sans Fred, Judy, or Gene.

Out of approximately two and a half hours, 40 minutes scintillate with theatrical fireworks. These are composed of numbers from Fosse's book shows: "Steam Heat," from The Pajama Game, with its three dancers as human pistons, swapping derbies, spreading simple delight; Hottentots hurling themselves across the floor in "From This Moment On," from the movie version of Kiss Me Kate; and best of all, "Rich Man's Frug," from Sweet Charity, with its Felliniesque dilettantes boxing like toy pugilist figures.

Almost worth the price of admission and babysitter is the other Charity number, "Big Spender." Here, the painted hostesses of a New York dance hall entice the customers to a "good time." Erotically clinging to the long railings that border their pleasure palace, they exude a sardonic, knowing lewdness worthy of George Grosz drawings of Weimar Berlin. Even more astounding is when Fosse's painted kewpie dolls come together in a spectacle of tongue-in-cheek raunch.

Yet, the majority of numbers seem like warm-up routines for headliners who never show up: a musical equivalent of Waiting for Godot.

Ever since Noel Coward sipped his final martini, British drama has gotten progressively more politicized and didactic, reminding one of a snapping turtle carting bricks on its shell. David Hare's Skylight, with its two-hour debate between a dedicated schoolteacher and an arrogant millionaire, on whether it is better to do good for one's fellow man or acquire power and live for oneself, will be familiar to anyone who has ever read Ayn Rand's novels on "the virtue of selfishness."

Hare's play is a direct descendant of Shaw's talkfests. Unfortunately, through the generations, the sparkle and rhapsodic language have been bred out of the species. At Ensemble Theatre, however, production triumphs over script. Director Licia Colombi has trained her cast to interact with the grace and polish of the Royal Ballet.

Anyone addicted to luminescence will want to take Cassie Holl home to display in a curio cabinet. With her long raven hair, she brings to mind Disney's Snow White. Paul Floriano, at the peak of a 20-year career, makes his angry millionaire a compelling force of nature. As his tortured son, Brian Breth blossoms under Colombi's tutelage. Like the best camp, this wonderful production is a perfect example of style over stodginess.

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