Forty-five years ago, when director-choreographer Bob Fosse opened his plotless revue Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ on Broadway, librettist Alan Jay Lerner famously sent Fosse a telegram of back-handed congratulations: “You finally did it. You killed the author.” Now director-choreographer Wayne Cilento, who danced in the original 1978 production, has revived the show in an energetic production that’s filled with sharp angles, jazz hands, some very talented dancers — and a package that all too often comes off as Fosse lite.
Cilento has assembled an incredibly talented ensemble. Standouts include Ida Saki, lithe and precise; Mattie Love, who oozes charm in multiple routines; Kolton Krouse, a showy bleach-blond who is both muscular and gender-fluid; and Peter John Chursin, a balletic type who dominates a long section called “Big City Mime” that was cut from the original production after its Boston tryout because a lead producer found its depiction of Times Square hookers and massage parlors too racy for the time. It’s a mesmerizing mini-ballet that occupies much of the first act.
The group numbers tend to be the strongest, particularly a multi-part routine set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” that kicks off Act 2. The rest of that act is a let-down, however, particularly a long patriotic section set to chestnuts like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Stars and Stripes Forever” that must have seemed cheesy even two years after the Bicentennial. I suspect that any high school pageant in Middle America would probably jettison the patriotic quotes projected throughout.
The revue format can be a creaky one, and its shortcomings are enhanced by an ensemble that is mostly made up of single threats. There are a handful of sung solos, which offer great vocal moments for Jacob Guzman and Khori Michelle Petinaud, but the group choral numbers are underwhelming vocally — and it’s best not to dwell on the book scenes meant to introduce plot-driven routines about an attempted heist or a jailed man who morphs into Mr. Bojangles. The spoken-word segues, filled with textbook insights into a dancer’s life or the meaning of the art form, might have more impact if they were clearly identified as Fosse’s own words.
Cilento makes some other curious decisions about when to update the material, and when to let it ride. I can’t remember a Broadway show that featured so much smoking, with dozens of cigarettes dangling from various dancers’ mouths, or flicked offstage on the beat, often for no real reason at all. But what’s billed as a Female Star Spot not only includes a male dancer (and a female dancer with a smartphone) but also a meta-commentary that weirdly disses the classic song “Here You Come Again” as antifeminist — and even blames the song’s narrative thread, about a “doormat” of a woman who struggles to get over her ex, on singer Dolly Parton (when the tune was written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann).
The show looks great — with a simple, versatile set by Robert Brill that’s sharply lit by David Grill and costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) that are sexy without distracting you from the movement. And this is a show that shines a bright, well-deserved spotlight on its talented ensemble — and some of the innovative work of Fosse, from the deep lunges to the proto-moonwalks. It’s a treat to see a tribute to his genius performed with so much enthusiasm, athleticism and real affection.