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Fosse is a must-see spectacular

by Bill Rodriguez

FOSSE. Choreography by Bob Fosse, re-created by Chet Walker. Co-directed by Richard Maltby Jr. and Ann Reinking. With Lynn Sterling, Linda Bowen, Terace Jones, and Josef Patrick Pescetto. At Providence Performing Arts Center through June 10.

[Fosse] Sustaining whip-crack high kicks and gymnastic choreography from first number to last, the Tony Award-winning musical Fosse fills the Providence Performing Arts Center with non-stop show-stoppers that out-sparkle even the gilded opulence of the setting. Fosse is a must-see spectacular for anyone who has ever been induced to tap a toe.

Ah, that choreography. Before his death in 1987, Bob Fosse won nine Tonys for such hits as Chicago, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game. His trademark choreographic style is artful showmanship full of stylized gestures and static elements that accumulate into dense, angular tableaus when the whole ensemble is variously posed.

Fosse used slow movements like Pinter uses pauses, to heighten our attention, and for contrast to the high-energy that can burst forth at any time. This show is a collection of greatest hit dance numbers, gems selected for their brilliance set against others that are merely wonderful. A key creator of this musical is Ann Reinking, the long-limbed danseuse so memorable in the 1979 biographical film about Fosse, All That Jazz. A long-time protégé of Fosse and keeper of the flame, she co-directed the production with Richard Maltby Jr. and co-choreographed with Chet Walker.

The billing has Fosse starring Linda Bowen, who is snappily prominent in ensemble numbers and is featured along with Terace Jones and Josef Patrick Pescetto in several others. However, pulling this disparate collection together is the voice of dancer Lynn Sterling. What with the vagaries of show biz inequities, and maybe an agent who doesn't like to pound tables, Sterling is merely alphabetized in the 23-member ensemble. But what pipes. From the quiet opening song, "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," to the boppy "I Gotcha," Sterling delivers with style and effortless aplomb. (In contrast to, say, Pescetto's insincere and maudlin delivery of the sincere though maudlin "Mr. Bojangles.")

High points are frequent. "Bye-Bye Blackbird," from a Liza Minnelli TV special, is an ingenious ensemble piece, quasi-techno in its mechanical heartbeat, capturing city sounds and images, from police whistle percussion to boxing moves as a swaggering choreographic motif. By the fifth number, our attention is so assured that the show can stop cold for a wordless solo dance from the 1978 Dancin', "Percussion 4." Terace Jones is a sinuous human sculpture, bare-chested under lighting that models every muscle, performing a tour de force of gymnastic grace that could go far to make choreography an Olympic event.

Fosse's decisions were smart, constantly offering the imaginative or even risky when the expected would do. His take on the "Big Spender," from Sweet Charity, was to present a line of loose women, perfunctorily posing for potential sugar daddies, languidly reciting provocative lines that read like they're enthusiastic.

The genius of this choreographer was to make arms every bit as valuable in his dances as legs. Hands are sometimes gloved, as in minstrelsy, to draw attention to them. In "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," the Act I closer, the ensemble halts in a finger-snap as one dancer ever-so slowly begins a hand-jive pattern, slapping his thighs, with the others eventually joining in until the company has worked into an enthralling crescendo. Marvelous.

No fool tossing out available dance history, Fosse employed balletic movements often and gladly. Reinking choreographed "Dancing In the Dark" in Fosse's style, segueing from passages George Balanchine could have designed. Joy is at the rhythmic heart of Fosse's style, whether letting dancers have fun with Neil Diamond's "Crunchy Granola Suite" or swinging to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," the kick-out-the-jams closing number by the entire rollicking company.

Fosse hit the stage kicking three years ago on Broadway, where it's still pulling in sold-out audiences. This touring company can easily sustain the wows echoing from the Broadhurst Theatre. No matter where your eye lands in an ensemble number, you see another unflagging dancer who could impress in a solo. This spirited company could light up a city during a power blackout.

Beg, borrow, or mug, but don't miss this world-class production. Dance in musicals doesn't get better than this.

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