All That Fosse


Bob Fosse died nearly 11 years ago, but never before has his work been so ubiquitous on local stages, with three classic Fosse musicals running this week alone and a major new compendium, “Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance,” now in rehearsal for performances here in the fall before it heads to Broadway.

The current three-show Fosse “festival” offers a look at some of his earliest stage choreography in the Reprise! concert version of “The Pajama Game,” from 1954, in Westwood. Up the freeway in Thousand Oaks, “Pippin” re-creates Fosse dances from 1972, midway through his most creative period as director-choreographer. Finally, the Tony-winning revamp of “Chicago” at the Music Center and in Costa Mesa finds his original 1975 choreography used as a springboard for creative embellishments by his longtime personal and professional associate, Ann Reinking.

If you talk with the artists guarding the Fosse legacy in these stagings, you begin to glimpse the range of his achievements and also some of the paradoxes: choreography that looks easy but remains incredibly detailed in its demands, for instance; a style often perceived as sexist but which Fosse women defend as a complex celebration of their womanhood.


“In life, most of us have to be either good girls or bad girls all the time,” explains veteran Fosse dancer Sandahl Bergman, dance captain for the “Chicago” company playing the Ahmanson and Orange County Performing Arts Center. “But I think Bob found the human element in us: In his shows, we’re good girls and bad girls: the embodiment of an incredible variety of feelings and expressions.”

“Chicago” looks at murder and its media aftermath with typical Fosse cynicism--”the worse your crime, the more celebrity you are,” in Bergman’s words. “It’s such a timely piece now after the O.J. Simpson trial and everything. That’s what’s so interesting about Bob’s work: There’s a dark side that he liked to explore, but he always went deeper to show the humor and absurdity.”

To Gwen Hillier, who has restaged Fosse’s “Pippin” choreography for the Theater League production at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, the great Fosse shows and films “give his take on life, his philosophy--but with a lot of vaudeville razzle-dazzle, because he started in burlesque and vaudeville and had a real appreciation for that kind of entertainment.”

As Fosse acknowledged, his turned-in, angular, low-to-the-ground style developed from what Hillier calls “the quirkiness of his own body--he wasn’t tall, didn’t have a huge build or as much ballet training as he probably would have liked.” So he began by capitalizing on his unique personality as a dancer and later demanded the same individuality from others.

“The original [national company of] ‘Pippin’ was one of the first shows that I danced where I wasn’t just a happy villager,” Hillier says. “He explained that he wanted each of us to find exactly who we were in the show, to make our own personal statement there.”

Like Hillier, “Pajama Game” choreographer Patti Colombo chooses quirky to describe Fosse’s style. “He was a genius,” she says. “It’s humbling. If you’re a dancer or a choreographer, you’ve got to be influenced by him.”


The performances at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse will be a staged concert, with basically five days to rehearse the entire show, and the show-stopping “Steam Heat” trio is the only Fosse choreography on view. Colombo finds it “a signature number with all the dancers looking like little Bob Fosses in their Chaplinesque suits and bowler hats.” She also points out that Fosse’s trademark penchant for hats came partly from vanity: He was losing his hair.

Obviously, the Fosse legacy--including hats and “Steam Heat”--will be the subject of the upcoming “Celebration,” produced by Livent and opening at the Ahmanson in October.

Shaped by such Fosse specialists as Reinking, Gwen Verdon, Nicole Fosse (Verdon’s daughter) and Fosse protege Chet Walker, it will include reconstructions of numbers previously seen only in movies or on television: the erotic airline commercial in “All That Jazz,” “Mein Herr” from the film of “Cabaret” and “Cool Hand Luke,” danced by Verdon on a 1967 Bob Hope TV special, plus other rarities.

“We’re only doing the numbers that stand by themselves,” says Marty Bell, Livent senior vice president for creative affairs. “We’re staying away from anything so specific to the original stories and characters that audiences might feel left out. But so many of his numbers are stories within themselves that you don’t have to know anything else.”

“I think his dancing is so strong in storytelling and so specific in technique that people love being in the room with it. So, aside from the fact that we’re going to do a show and present it to large audiences, now there’ll be 37 people [from the cast] who can go out and teach others how to do it and preserve it for the next generation.”


“Pippin,” today to Sunday, Probst Center of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E., Thousand Oaks Blvd. Today, Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. $29.50-$38.50. (805) 583-8700.


“The Pajama Game,” Continues through May 17, Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood. Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m and 7 p.m. $45-$50. (310) 825-2101.

“Chicago,” Continues through July 5, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sunday evenings (May 10, 17, 24, 31, June 7, 14), 7:30 p.m.; Thursday matinees (June 18, 25, July 2), 2 p.m. $25-$70. (213) 628-2772. Also July 7-12, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. $21-$52.50. (714) 740-7878.