STAGE REVIEW : Robbins' 20 Years of Success on 'Broadway'

Times Theater Critic

There's something both poignant and exhilarating about "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," which arrived Sunday night at the Imperial Theatre.

On the one hand, it's thrilling to see some of the great moments in American musical theater brought back to life by the master who first staged them, and to realize that their reputation was absolutely earned--that Robbins' Keystone Kops ballet from "High Button Shoes" (1947), for example, is still the funniest runaround number ever seen on any stage at any time in the history of the musical theater.

On the other hand, it's a melancholy thought that this is the last of the wine.

Robbins choreographed and directed on Broadway for about 20 years before returning to the world of ballet. This is his selection of some of his own best work over the period, starting with "On the Town" (1945) and ending with "Fiddler on the Roof" (1964).

Included are excerpts from shows that everybody knows ("The King and I," "Peter Pan," "Gypsy" and, of course, "West Side Story") and shows that nobody has thought about for 20 years: "Billion Dollar Baby" (1945), "Miss Liberty" (1949.)

The first lesson of the evening is that all Broadway musicals dim out in time, even the ones we think we remember. We can listen to the cast album, but how did the show look? How did it move? What was its aura?

"West Side Story," for example. It has had several not-bad revivals over the years, and everybody remembers the movie. But you haven't seen the rumble under the highway until you've seen it in the original.

We expect impact as the Jets square off against the Sharks, and Robbins' leap-frogging young dancers provide it. We note that the key-image here is the flat sweep of a switchblade knife: the rumble whirls around that, setting up subsidiary eddies of danger and then thrillingly clearing them--or intensifying them.

But we also note the number isn't really about urban warfare. It's about kids in sneakers going farther out than they meant to go. The rumble could be a schoolyard game that got out of hand. Besides conveying the excitement of the fight, Robbins reminds us of the vulnerability of the body.

We notice too the homage to classic ballet. It was a distraction in the movie (why are those young men doing leaps in the middle of 69th Street?) but it adds to the sense of preordained tragedy here. One section of the piece even ends with the kids bowing their heads, in something like the reverence that a dance class gives the teacher.

Theater is metaphor, and people are not made of plastic. Those are two other lessons of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."

The evening may disappoint a generation of viewers who grew up on Michael Bennett's and Bob Fosse's shows, and who therefore equate Broadway dancing with top hats, high elbows and "attitude." For them, Robbins' dance line may seem a bit soft.

Others will welcome its grace--as in the wedding dances in "Fiddler"; as when the sailors and girls wave goodby at the end of "On the Town," as in Jason Alexander and Faith Prince's charming soft shoe to "I Still Get Jealous" from "High Button Shoes."

It's a defiantly low-tech show. The light bridge doesn't move--the dancers do. There are pauses between the numbers. When Tinker Bell appears, she's a wavering green light, not a laser beam, as in the last Sandy Duncan revival. Robbins seems to be saying: Musicals can't be selling something every minute. A show needs to breathe.

After which he hits you in the face with 15 breathless minutes of Mack Sennett comedy--everything that Gower Champion tried to do in "Mack and Mabel" and couldn't.

This is a musical that doesn't leave you hungry an hour later. But "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" also has its drawbacks. One is that Robbins seems to have selected his 55-member company for its ability to do an all-around good job (dance, sing, act) without sticking out too much as individuals.

That makes sense for an evening that covers so many periods and dance styles. But it doesn't work so well when a scene demands a star's presence, as so many of these excerpts do--the ones from "Fiddler," for example. These kids could be the bus-and-truck company, complete with stuck-on beards.

Another problem is Robbins' view of the sexes. Especially in the shows from the 1940s, males represent the human race while females tend to be played as cartoons--either funny ones or menacing ones. This is one period attitude that hasn't worn well, and it takes some of the pleasure out of the scenes from "On the Town" and "Billion Dollar Baby."

It's also disappointing that the only new Robbins number in the show is a "lost" one, entitled "Mr. Monotony." It was dropped both from "Miss Liberty" and "Call Me, Madam," for a very good reason. It's monotonous.

The finale, however, is glorious. We're back with the three sailors from "On The Town." Their shore leave is over, just as they were getting to know New York. "Oh, well," they and their girls sing--"We'll catch up some other time."

That must have been very moving during the war. It's almost as moving today. The back-curtain at the Imperial lights up with the names of all the shows that Robbins did over those 20 years, and it's as if we're slowly pulling away in the harbor from a Broadway that will never come again.

An evening of old Robbins shows is fine, but, at 70, how many more shows will he have time to do? And all of his successors are gone--Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Ron Field. You close this memory book with a sigh.

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