If only Livent could dance its troubles away! There’s surely enough kinetic energy onstage at the Broadhurst Theater, where the company’s latest — and possibly last? — musical, “Fosse,” opened Thursday, to splash away even the deepest rivers of red ink. If only such a feat of physics could be concocted. That’s a fantasy, of course, but the thrilling charge that this dance revue sends off at its best is enough to make Broadway-watchers forget the dire straits of its troubled producer. “Fosse” celebrates at length and in high style the long moment of a director-choreographer of unique and indelible gifts, as distinctive a dance artist as Broadway has produced.
The show, in three acts and 2-1/2 hours, is an abundant collection of dances created by Fosse over the course of four decades and in almost as many mediums, including career landmarks from musicals “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Sweet Charity,” “Chicago” and “Dancin’,” and selections from the shows that famously won him showbiz’s triple crown in 1973 (an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony): the movie “Cabaret,” the TV special “Liza With a Z” and Broadway’s “Pippin.”
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But it’s also, at times, a subtle and artfully crafted comment on the forces that drove him and the endless striving that led to his untimely death in 1987. One of the sad ironies of Fosse’s career — and paradoxically one of the driving engines of his genius — was an unshakable feeling that nothing was ever enough. That trio of ’73 accolades didn’t leave him feeling complacent, for example — they only drove him to push himself harder, to prove to himself and others that he was worthy.
“You work, you slave, you worry so…” runs a lyric in the Tin Pan Alley song “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” which opens the show in a coolly elegant vocal rendition by Valarie Pettiford, who is also a sultry, powerful dancer. The tune was used in Fosse’s 1986 musical “Big Deal,” and it’s an apt epigraph for a show about a man whose life, like his dancing, found its inspiration in constant motion on the frenzied, frantic edge. The splayed fingers, twitching, snapping hands, thrusting hips and bobbing heads that were the accents of Fosse’s inimitable dance style were manifestations of a tightly wound nervous energy flashing out in spasms of movement. Through the power of his talent, he turned such personal angst into a distinct brand of showbiz artistry — neurotic inner energy transmuted into entertainment.
That artistry is lovingly re-created and impeccably executed in “Fosse.” The choreographer’s classic showstoppers and some less familiar setpieces have been carefully stitched together by the show’s creators — who include former Fosse muses Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking along with revue specialist Richard Maltby Jr. and former Fosse dancer Chet Walker — with smaller dance vignettes that use elements from what seems to be virtually everything Fosse ever created, right down to now-forgotten musicals such as “Redhead” and duets danced with his early partner Mary Ann Niles on 1950s TV shows.
For all the archival interest of these connecting interludes — and some are more successful than others — it’s the classic Fosse showstoppers that most enthrall, beginning with a pair marked by a simple joyousness that Fosse would soon leave behind for a more hard-edged style. “Steam Heat,” from 1954’s “The Pajama Game,” is a witty piece of locomotion in which key Fosse trademarks — bowler hats, hunched or stiff torsos and flapping extremities — first announced themselves. It’s danced with a splashy, infectious finesse and clockwork precision by Michael Paternostro, Alex Sanchez and Jane Lanier, a redheaded dynamo who, along with Pettiford, is one of the show’s featured stars. “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.,” the goofy ballet for baseball players from 1955’s “Damn Yankees,” is the other full example of Fosse’s early work, in which the exuberant mood of the ’50s Broadway musical inspires a rare piece of character-driven choreography.
With 1968’s “Sweet Charity,” the first musical Fosse also directed, his sexually aggressive style came fully into its own, and “Big Spender” is still the quintessential example of the alternately cool and hot erotic thrust of his finest work. Who can resist the luridly funny come-on of that chorus line of tired dance hall girls, seducing the audience in spasms of frenzied gyrating like a phalanx of battered Barbie dolls jerked unwillingly to life? “The Rich Man’s Frug,” also from “Charity,” is Fosse at his wittiest, turning the cool moves of the swinging ’60s dance crazes on their ear in a ballet of attitude run amok, executed with smooth insouciance by a corps whose arching eyebrows and cigarette-sucking lips are just as expressive as their more hard-working limbs.
Among the rarer gems that “Fosse” showcases are some key selections from his 1978 revue “Dancin’.” The first act closes with a tribute to the effortless art of Fred Astaire, “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” that refracts tap and soft-shoe movements through the prism of Fosse’s own style. The evening’s finale is also from “Dancin’ “: a 1940s-themed extravaganza (with rare cheap-looking costumes from Santo Loquasto) that features brilliant turns by some of the evening’s finest dancers, including Elizabeth Parkinson, who throws around her tornado of red curls with abandon as she manipulates her elongated body with cool and captivating athleticism.
If “Fosse” has a fault, it is a slavish need to include a virtual encyclopedia of Fosse’s creations; the result is a feeling of superabundance that begins to set in when we’re treated to the sixth piece from “Dancin,’ ” for example (particularly extraneous is the unavoidably maudlin “Mr. Bojangles,” danced with wondrous sensitivity though it is by Sergio Trujillo). Fosse’s dance vocabulary, while distinctly his own, was undeniably limited. So while it’s enjoyable to see the ways he combined and recombined certain gestures across the course of the decades, the sheer volume of numbers on display here sometimes points up the confining nature of his repertoire of moves.
Still, a certain overkill is somehow fitting in a tribute to a man who didn’t know when to quit, and that jittering, jitterbugging finale from “Dancin’ ” is an appropriately high-energy climax. As groups of dancers leap on and off in increasingly complex combinations, the number keeps reaching for new energetic heights, throbbing more ecstatically with the feeling of almost sexual release in movement that gave Fosse’s work its charge. Dazzled by the frenzied beauty of bodies in motion, you don’t know when or where it’s going to stop, and almost wish it never would.