Music Box Theatre, New York, NY.
March 31, 2023.
Having been out of town during the opening week of DANCIN’ on Broadway, I may have missed the chance to contribute my voice to the hot takes offered by writers for publications like New York Stage, Vulture and of course The New York Times. But after reading countless reviews critical of Wayne Cilento’s revival of Bob Fosse’s DANCIN’ and conducting an interview with Cilento himself (as well as Co-Dance Captains Mattie Love and Gabriel Hyman), I’m happy to be chiming in a bit later, with more background information, perspective and thoughtfulness than I otherwise might have had.
According to Cilento, his task was to reintroduce DANCIN’ to a new generation of audiences while honoring Fosse’s original choreography and indelible legacy. With critics pouncing from all sides to point out the ways that Cilento failed to adequately revive Fosse’s work, there are plenty of successes being overlooked in the prognosticating, capitalistic spirit of having something incendiary to say. As a relatively young writer (and dancer) who could only learn about Fosse after he’d already passed away, and who certainly never had the opportunity to see the 1978 version of DANCIN’ (or any of Fosse’s original works directly), I think Cilento and the creative team largely achieved their goal. While certain numbers are clearly more effective than others, the 2023 revival of DANCIN’ successfully introduces Fosse’s iconic and versatile style to the next generation –– of dancers and of audience members.
Delivered by Manuel Herrera, the prologue’s proposal of an “almost plotless musical” could be seen by some as a cop out, but as a fastidious narrative hunter, it released me from the ball and chain of linearity and tracking consistent personas, giving me permission to take the dancing (and dancers) at face value, and accept the meaning that accumulated on top of the movement as secondary to the dancers’ bodies and their composition in space. As a dancer and choreographer myself, regular performances in cramped black boxes for meager audiences composed largely of family and friends is a constant reminder that contemporary American audiences have little interest in dance concerts. The genius of Fosse’s DANCIN’ (and I have a feeling this was equally the case when it opened in the ’70s) is that it tricks audiences into attending a dance concert –– complete with all the rigor and artistry of concert dance –– by packaging it in a language that is accessible to the masses. In 2023, that language is sex, bright lights, and rock and roll.
Crunchy Granola Suite introduces the audience to classic Fosse-isms like hip thrusts and jazz hands, and is followed by Recollections of an Old Dancer, which features Jacob Guzman as a wistful, tipsy, cigarette-smoking “Mr. Bojangles” whose beguiling subtlety and grounded movement tastefully interpret the song’s lyrics.
Next comes Percussion, the first long number of the evening. Although overacted by Ioana Alfonso, her claim that the dancers are “the music translated into gesture” holds. Part I is a barefooted girls trio whose evenly timed cannons and remarkable precision (which reaches its apex in a controlled, three-tiered penché) build suspense that explodes in Part II, a crowd-pleasing, boxing-inspired male trio rife with athletic tricks; a one-footed heel-toe travel step topped by shoulder isolations serves as the section’s exclamation point. In Part III, Fosse’s signature forced arch walk steals the show; rounded arms and pinched shoulder blades, floppy tulle hats, and sharp shifts of focus lend a flamingo-like energy to the movement. The way the dancers hit the big accents that emerge from the music’s irregular rhythms with small, piercing movements is incredibly satisfying. The number concludes with “Ionisation,” a balletic solo performed by Ron Todorowski in a revealing, diaphanous red costume that culminates in a fouetté section, but loses much of the vitality that the rest of the number has built up.
Although short and arriving a bit out of nowhere, Three In One, a trio performed by Tony D’Alelio, Mattie Love, and Nando Morland is a stand out. Taking place far downstage in front of a screen displaying a map-like background, the fabulous black and white costumes (and by the way, all of the costumes are amazing –– shout out to costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung), clever shimmy-filled choreography, and uninhibited performance by the dancers fill the theater with an undeniable energetic buzz.
Up next is Big City Mime, a number resurrected from a pre-Broadway run of the original DANCIN’ composed of snippets of choreography from other Fosse works like Pippin’ and Sweet Charity. (Because there is extremely limited archival footage of DANCIN’, the original choreography for Big City Mime is lost to history.) From the sexy bookstore keeper –– excellently played by Dylis Croman –– whose trademark move is an inner thigh hand circle to the far too condensed rendition of “Hey Big Spender” to the cartoonish redlight district video backdrop, the number centers New York as the capital of pleasure. Cyril, the piece’s protagonist, is danced by Peter John Chursin. With facility and technique to die for, he transforms from an intimidated outsider to an intrigued New Yorker in training. Although this number’s attempt at narrative sometimes misses the mark and it verges on culty with its incorporation of Charlemagne-era inspired knight costumes, “Backstreet Rivalry,” a confrontational duet between Chursin and Herrera (complete with a pirouette joke for the dancers and quick-witted in the audience), and “Spring Chicken,” a section led by Kolton Krouse donning a feather boa and bedazzled LaDuca boots, make up for what other sections lack. Fosse’s choreography somehow manages to turn the patent raunch of ass slaps and lap dances artistic.
A strength of the show is its varied modes of transition; while some numbers make use of the classic, designed-to-elicit-applause Broadway ending pose, many of them flow into and out of one another. Big City Mime, for example, ends with Chursin in the spotlight (one of many strokes of lighting genius –– props to lighting designer David Grill) performing a rapid, rhythmically complex body percussion solo against a black backdrop. This leads seamlessly into “Dancin’ Man,” the final number of Act I which features the full company in tan suits and hats. Beginning with singing, smaller gestural movement and grounded sand-inspired choreography, the piece climaxes with an accumulated, syncopated, full-group body percussion section and ends with a satisfying unison bang. It’s a highlight of the night, and does justice to Fosse’s aspiration to leave “footprints on the sand of time.”
Benny’s Number breaks the intermission with a bang; a drummer shreds the kit from the scaffolding as the dancers throw their head back to the beat of the bass drum. From knee turns and slides to characteristic side arching jumps, the dancers bring even more life to the already exuberant “Sing Sing Sing” music. In “Trumpet Solo,” Krouse lies on a platform center stage in glittering tights; they perform a razor-sharp solo reminiscent of a ballet variation with its repeating technical elements –– Krouse flies across the stage in a dazzling series of jump layout kicks. Another highlight of Benny’s Number is the tap duet between Guzman and Herrera. They gaze toward their feet casually as they paradiddle and nerve tap to soft piano music.
In Big Deal, Khori Michelle Petinaud’s powerful voice rips through the theater, and handcuffed dancers use their chains to match the percussion section. The number is a lot of fun, but the plot (about a heist) is a bit muddled. By cutting some of the weaker numbers (like The Female Star Spot, a small group most memorable for its strained jokes, and America, a strange concoction of patriotic confetti, straight-faced Yankee Doodle park and bark, and quotes by a disjointed group of historical figures about America), the show could have easily been condensed into one act.
Yani Marin’s acting skills shine as she delivers an epilogue channeling the late Bob Fosse: “It’s the people you fall in love with on a show.” DANCIN’ certainly gives audiences a chance to fall in love with the cast; while not all elements of the show are created equal (the use of the massive LED screen in the background for example often feels rudimentary), I see the relatively equal distribution of feature moments for the dancers as an upgrade from the original, which apparently focused more heavily on individual dancers. And for all the critics’ complaints about the show’s narrative failings, I think the practice of trying to bring disparate parts together into a cohesive whole is really quite contemporary, with parallels to the challenges posed by living in the Information Age.
In the case of DANCIN’, this cohesion comes from the choreography itself. Despite its frequent use of repetition, no movement overstays its welcome. This is the genius of Fosse –– the unflinching ability to leave a moment behind just as the audience starts feeling attached to it. With the TikTok attention spans that dominate the zeitgeist of 2023, DANCIN’s diverse theatrical medley is uniquely suited for today’s audiences.
By Charly Santagado of Dance Informa.