What does it mean to be authentic? Is it slavish adherence to a previously established style?
Are Martha Graham old classics performed by the current iteration of her dance troupe “authentic” versions of her ballets? Yes and no. The greatness of her art has been preserved by a company that dances them in a newer style gradually evolved from her revolutionary hard-edged, percussive technique. Arms are now more rounded, slightly softer, and contractions more pretty than percussive. Nevertheless, the power and intrigue of Graham’s creations still shine.
Similarly, Wayne Cilento’s current edition of the 1978 original Dancin’ preserves most of that show, changing the title to Bob Fosse’s Dancin’.
Perhaps it’s the difficulty of finding dancers who can perform the intricate, body isolation moves so emblematic of Fosse’s very individual style, but to those who know and experienced his brilliance when he was hands on, this cast is a bit too clean cut and even-tempered. (The late Ann Reinking, a Fosse muse, was more successful staging her revival of Chicago still setting records on Broadway after moving from its New York City Center Encores! birthplace.)
Nevertheless, Cilento is using a great deal of the original vignettes, excluding a few (most particularly Fosse’s perfectly ludicrous sexualizing of a ballet class) and adding more spoken lines, including an intermittent narration given by the charming, solid Manuel Herrera who also shows off his great dancing chops.
As in the original there are many direct quotes from Fosse musicals integrated into each section: “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, interpolated into Act One’s centerpiece, “Big City Mime”; the famous Pippin TV commercial trio used in “Dancin’ Man”; and many other reminders of Fosse’s creative musical mind.
In the opening number, the immense scaffold set (designed by Robert Brill) parts to allow the cast to slowly assemble and go into a very balletic dance which segues into the most charming number on the program.
The spirit of Fosse hovers as a voiceover in the gently paced section called “Recollections of an Old Dancer,” danced by Yeman Brown and Jacob Guzman to the wistful “Mr. Bojangles” sung by the ubiquitous Herrera. (Fosse’s voiceover is also movingly heard in “America.”)
The “Big City Mime” tells the story of Cyril (Peter John Chursin, well cast as a naïf, but a bit unbelievable as the roué he becomes) who comes to the big city only to be put through the wringer: dance halls, massage parlors and even a strange bookstore. He is feted, beguiled and used by the tawdry characters: a pamphlet man (Herrera), bookstore worker (Dylis Croman), masseuses (Ioana Alfonso, Mattie Love and Ida Saki) and the “Let Me Entertain You” chorus of shady ladies.
Still happily included in the show is the Act Two opener, “Benny’s Number,” the fabulously thumping Big Band piece showing off Fosse’s mastery of period styles. Cilento has eschewed the original zoot suit costumes designed by Willa Kim for more stylish, sedate suits and dresses. (Showy, glittery costumes designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.) This famous, drum heavy music could not be more perfect for exuberant kicks, swooping slides and fast-paced partnering. Kolton Krouse is sinuous in the “Trumpet Solo” and Jacob Guzman joins Herrera in an upbeat copycat duet named “Piano.”
Also from the original production is the patriotic “America” which is Fosse’s slightly sardonic view of our country. The troupe marched, Fosse style, to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The dancers displayed their charm in the final section, “Big Deal” (from Fosse’s last Broadway show created after the original Dancin’) but really lit up the stage in their energetically staged individual curtain calls.
Bob Fosse’s original Dancin’ dancers, mostly gleaned from the casts of his musicals, had a certain sardonic world-weary quality. I can’t imagine this 2023 cast-exuberant and beautifully coached as they are—giving the subtly tawdry feel to the Fosse steps in shows like Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago or All That Jazz.
The 2023 Dancin’ company, all technically superb, just don’t have that slightly seamy edge. Even the covers of the prospective Playbills are tellingly different: the original a mess of disembodied body parts and the current a lovely sculptural grouping rising into upraised arms.
Lighting designer David Grill provides outstanding mood support, including some dramatic use of backlighting. Also supporting Cilento’s vision are the video designs of Finn Ross that go from colorful patterns to streetscapes and maps of Manhattan.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ is still a vividly entertaining show even if it is a not-so-perfect representation of Fosse’s unique take on dance. The qualities that made Fosse a towering figure in theater, film and television are still there.
Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ (through May 14, 2023)
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission