By: Samuel L. Leiter
March 31, 2023: Don’t be deceived by the essentially bare stage facing you at the start of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, a revival at the Music Box of Fosse’s 1978 multi-Tony-nominated all-dance revue (originally called just Dancin’). What you’re about to see is nothing like the scenery-less version of A Doll’s House over at the Hudson Theatre. Robert Brill’s skeletal scenic concept will soon explode with such fantastic lighting by Robert Grill and video designs by Finn Ross you may feel as visually overwhelmed by them as by the incredible dancing they’re designed to illuminate and enhance. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s numerous striking costumes help pile on the eye candy.
Fosse, who died in 1986, created the original version as a showcase for his choreographic genius; although it contains bits and pieces of his classic contributions to Broadway shows (and a few films), it’s a plotless revue with no overarching theme other than the glory and spirit of dance as he envisioned it. A cast of 16 remarkably energetic, attractive, and gifted dancers are put through their demanding paces in two acts broken into 14 titled sequences, most including multiple musical numbers ranging from classic to swing to pop to folk (if you can call “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Johnny Comes Marching Home” folk) to Broadway, some of it very familiar, some less so. Very little narrative or explanatory material is provided; as performer Manuel Herrera informs us at the start, we’re there to appreciate the art of dancing, and not much more.
Only a small part of the show verges on becoming a Fosse anthology. Fosse fans will spot several partially reconstructed passages from his shows. Dancin’ was largely conceived as an original work, and even such recognizable numbers as “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity flash by quickly before dissolving into new moves; they may also appear, like a “Pippin” bit, which happens in a bookstore, where you’d least expect them.
The Playbill offers song titles but doesn’t connect them to specific shows, so, for those instances where they exist, only a Broadway insider or musical theatre specialist would know precisely what comes from where; on the other hand, a sequence late in the show, called“Big Deal,” identifies that particular title (a flop). But if you try to connect all the dances to Fosse originals, you may run into problems:“Let Me Entertain You” may be Fosse-ized here, but he had nothing to do with Gypsy. For a standard Fosse musical you can check out the long-running revival of Chicago, which Dancin’ doesn’t reference.
Directed by original company member Wayne Cilento, the show—which premiered last year at San Diego’s Old Globe—has undergone a number of changes in its routines (some of them cut) and their sequence. There are solos, duos, trios, and larger groupings, including one or two using the entire company. Several dancers—Manuel Herrera, Karli Dinardo, and Khori Michelle Petinaud, among them—also get to show off their vocal chops, displaying the kind of remarkable virtuosity that draws audiences to Broadway.
Basically, the show emphasizes its ensemble, rather than any particular member, although several manage to stand out a bit before fading back into the group. Perhaps most obvious is Kolton Krouse, a gender-fluid performer with coiffed blonde hair framing a beautiful face in femme makeup. Combining this with powerful athleticism—those flying kicks could kill!—and androgynous ensembles, he creates an indelible image one small step short of outright drag.
Fosse’s dances have long been so closely associated with certain iconic moves one need only see a still photo of a number to identify its creator: the splayed jazz hands, the leap with one hip thrust to the side as feet and raised hands form the body into a crescent, the pigeon-toed stance, the hat (often a derby) cocked with a finger at a rakish angle, the seductively sexual thrusts of pelvis and buttocks, and so forth. Those ingredients all appear and reappear, but many of the numbers opt instead for more traditional, balletic leaps, pirouettes, jetés, and the like, albeit rarely far from a sexually provocative context. Late in the proceedings, we also get a tap number, as well as a chain gang dance in which the chains binding wrist to wrist are used to create rhythmical sounds.
Not all the numbers are first-rate, among them several in the “America” sequence. In another sequence, “Big City Mime,” in which an innocent out-of-towner named Cyril, visiting what must surely be New York, finds himself swirling in a world of iniquity, goes on for too long, albeit given tour de force expression by the awesomely lithe Peter John Chursin. “Benny’s Number,” an homage to Big Band leader Benny Goodman, features exceptional percussion playing by Gary Seligson (uncredited in the Playbill’s musical playlist), channeling Gene Krupa doing “Sing, Sing, Sing,” as the company brings the joint down. Still, I’d have preferred some thrilling Boogie Woogie-inflected choreography to the more conventional Broadway chorus routine being performed, excellent as it is.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ may not be perfect, but if you want two hours of nearly nonstop, essentially nonverbal demonstrations of the beauty, power, and expressiveness of Broadway dancing as conceived by one of its foremost creative geniuses, this is the moment. Even the curtain calls contribute, with each incredibly energetic dancer being acknowledged as their name is illuminated in huge letters and they take their individualized bows. It may be called Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ but it’s theirs as well.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ ***1/2
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th Street, NYC
Photography: Julieta Cervantes