Five minutes and an intermission have disappeared from “Fosse” since I saw it on Broadway last June, but that’s not all that has vanished in the Tony-winning musical’s move across the Atlantic. (The aim, apparently, is to have the American touring version be the model for all this show’s productions.) On Broadway, the show was cold and heartless, but it sold an undeniable sizzle as delivered by a cast of hoofers and gypsies who felt the material in their bones. The British company, by comparison, relentlessly drive the show — at times, there’s a rather moving discrepancy between the effort on view and the resulting affect, which is negligible — but to diminishing returns, as if aware that they are at a cultural remove from the great showman who gives the show its title. If it’s hard work you’re after, you’ll find it in abundance here, but it’s one thing to seem as if you’re counting the steps in your head and quite another to respond to such a definably Broadway experience where it matters: in the pores.
Maybe, too, this is one musical that scarcely rewards repeat visits. ‘(Interestingly, a very ad hoc poll of London theatergoers’ responses would suggest that those who know least about Fosse are the ones who most enjoy “Fosse.”) It’s not just that there’s a limit to the number of pulsating pas de trois you can take in without getting bored, especially when the sex supposedly on view is patently skin-deep. What “Fosse” celebrates is a style that is scintillating in the context of a show (“Chicago,” anyone?) that responds with a sinuous, finger-snapping wit of its own.
But isolate the dance numbers the way Fosse did virtually all available body parts, and you have a show that gyrates and grinds and strikes attitudes in a vacuum. The exception: “Mr. Bojangles,” which is as shamelessly lachrymose as the mood elsewhere is aloof. You can’t help feeling the girls of the great and sassy “Big Spender” would tell Bojangles just where to get off.
The show’s creators — Chet Walker, Richard Maltby Jr. and Ann Reinking — clearly wanted to avoid anything so dry as a history lesson, which is why those who want to know what they’re seeing end up struggling in the dark with their programs. In the end, however, it hardly matters. A hit parade of sequences that draws heavily from the 1978 “Dancin’ ” — whose own status as a revue in effect makes “Fosse” a revue of a revue — “Fosse” isn’t about personality or feeling or much except glitz. In “Chicago,” the wonderful “Razzle Dazzle” serves as a sly deconstruction of the very point of the show; in “Fosse,” the same number acts as an unfortunate commentary on the occasion at hand.
There are moments, of course, that do excite, mostly when the rather vocally challenged company is not being asked to sing. (It may partly be the sound system’s fault that “Crunchy Granola Suite,” as put across by two apparent non-singers, sounds rather too much like the foodstuff of its title.) Who can resist a sea of hands becoming so many blackbirds in “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a number to which Andrew Bridge’s truly sculptural lighting makes its own spry, smart contribution, just as one looks on in awe while a bowler hat in “Steam Heat” seems to assume a life of its own? And though the Benny Goodman finale is as protracted as ever, it does boast Emma Tunmore, whose whiplash hair demonstrates an amazing vitality before you even notice her legs.
Happily, too, “Fosse” does feature one real triple threat where it matters most — in the top-billed Nicola Hughes, an alumna of London’s “Tommy” and “Chicago” who scorches the theater with her own quietly feral heat. Heftier than many dancers, Hughes stands apart in more ways than one, getting the show off to a smoky start with “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” which gets gratefully reprised late on.
Does the song mean anything in context? Not here, even if one senses that Fosse’s fundamentally bleak brilliance could only have meant the title to be ironic within its punningly named source musical, “Big Deal.” But as Hughes pitches it, starting softly, building the song to a torchy burn, one glimpses some fire to accompany the surrounding ice. It’s as if Hughes alone knows what her colleagues as yet lack the savvy and experience to possess — no surface display of razzle or dazzle means anything unless it comes from within.