at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre

By Albert Williams

“Life is just a bowl of cherries,” advises a 1931 vaudeville song by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson. “Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious.” The lyric, crooned slowly and soulfully by the captivating Reva Rice at the start of the magnificent musical revue Fosse, suggests a viewpoint that’s simultaneously flip and philosophical–like the contrasting and sometimes conflicting sides of Bob Fosse, the Chicago-bred director-choreographer whom the show honors. The tension between these two perspectives–one ebullient and carefree, the other awed, even spooked by the fragility of existence–pervades this nearly two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza as it did Fosse’s manically paced, too short life: he died at age 60 in 1987, from a heart attack suffered on the Washington, D.C., opening night of a Broadway-bound revival of Sweet Charity.

Created by a cadre of Fosse’s friends and colleagues–including dancers Ann Reinking (his lover and protege) and Gwen Verdon (his wife and lifelong muse)–Fosse is much more than a simple recap of its subject’s prolific career. The show delivers plenty of what most viewers might expect: the snappy, strutting, sexy routines familiar from stage, screen, and TV successes like Sweet Charity, Chicago, Cabaret, All That Jazz, and Liza With a Z. But Reinking, Verdon, and their colleagues–Chet Walker (who choreographed the Goodman Theatre’s Pal Joey with Reinking a decade ago) and director Richard Maltby Jr. (whose knack for concept revues was also displayed in the 1970s Fats Waller tribute Ain’t Misbehavin’)–have sorted through the flops as well as the hits, the forgotten efforts as well as the famous ones. (“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” for instance, was used by Fosse in Big Deal, his short-lived 1986 stage version of the 1958 movie Big Deal on Madonna Street, an Italian crime comedy Fosse relocated to the black ghetto of 1930s Chicago.) Though the show includes a few of Fosse’s signature pieces–notably the comically sleazy “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity and the goofily exuberant “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game–it omits a slew of crowd pleasers. “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees, “Magic to Do” from Pippin, “Coffee Break” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” from Sweet Charity are among the rousing routines one might have expected to see here. But their omission makes room for less well-known–and more personal–Fosse works, including several from the 1978 Broadway revue Dancin’ whose loving lyricism isn’t usually associated with the mischievous master of razzle-dazzle.

Eschewing the chronological format of traditional tribute revues, the creative team has chosen a free-association approach, retracing the footsteps that Fosse left “in the sands of rhythm and rhyme,” to quote Johnny Mercer’s lyric for “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” used here not only as a Fred Astaire salute (as Fosse intended) but as an epitaph for Fosse himself. The show skips, struts, and slides through almost 40 years of impressively varied output by an artist who started out in Chicago at north-side nightclubs like the Cuban Village and ended up at the top of the ladder in New York and Hollywood.

Take “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man,” the show’s first-act finale, whose charming air of simplicity belies the precision it demands. Evoking turn-of-the-century innocence with dancers in seersucker suits and white straw boaters slapping intricate, playful patty-cake rhythms on their thighs, it’s a universe away from “Fosse’s World,” which early in the evening catalogs the hallmarks of Fosse’s erotically charged style: the splayed fingers, arched backs, scrunched shoulders, undulating arms, and tautly twitching pelvises of dancers clad in black derbies and low-slung pants. An even bolder sensuality is exhibited in the semiclassical (and seminude) “Take Off With Us,” three provocative pas de deux from the movie All That Jazz–lesbian, gay, and straight–performed simultaneously.

Two numbers showcase the use of gesture. In “From the Edge,” from Dancin’, Ken Alan, Matt Loehr, and Julio Monge portray boxers, bouncing about the stage as they jab the air with their fists. (No Broadway choreographer ever conveyed macho more convincingly than Fosse.) And “Rich Man’s Frug,” from Sweet Charity, satirizes 60s squares trying to be hip as they puff away on their primly gripped cigarette holders in front of swirling op-art projections.

But the production goes beyond celebrating Fosse’s style to probe his sometimes dark heart, using his choreography and the music that inspired it to suggest his complex personality. The second-act opening–an elegant suite of ballroom dances set to the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz classic “Dancing in the Dark”–recalls the act Fosse had with his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, playing swank hotels like the Palmer House and early TV variety shows like Your Hit Parade. (The pair met in New York but married at Chicago’s Saint Chrysostom’s Church while on tour with the post-World War II revue Call Me Mister.) The sweeping romanticism of this section is a striking contrast with the evening’s raucous finale, a high-kicking, zoot-suited blowout for the entire ensemble set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” played onstage by the band.

This explosive ending is preceded by several haunting numbers suggesting Fosse’s cynical, self-destructive side and prophesying his death. The sequence begins with Greg Reuter–very Fosse-like with his insouciant attitude and scruffy blond beard–prancing in front of a glittery curtain as he sings “Razzle Dazzle” (from Chicago), whose theme is that audiences are suckers who deserve to be conned by showbiz trickery, subsequently illustrated by an all-girl chorus waving white feather fans in a campy Ziegfeld spoof. But the sneering, self-deprecating hucksterism of “Razzle Dazzle” is quickly contradicted in a passage on the ephemerality of dance and dancers: “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” from the autobiographical All That Jazz, features a female trio in disjointed slow motion (reflecting the choreographer’s heart-attack-induced hallucination) urging the artist to curtail his feverish pace. That leads into “Mr. Bojangles,” from Dancin’, in which a beat-up, burned-out old black dancer (Cassel Miles) is partnered by the graceful ghost of his younger self (Terace Jones) before shuffling offstage, literally and metaphorically heading “toward the light.” In such passages, Fosse becomes at once terrifying and uplifting, transcending the traditional showbiz expectations that Fosse himself at once mocked and reveled in.

The versatility of Fosse’s choreography, so cunningly and lovingly selected by Reinking and her collaborators, is matched by the virtuosity of this amazingly talented touring company. (It’s appropriate that the Broadway hit’s national edition debut in Fosse’s hometown at the Oriental Theatre: during the Loop’s vaudeville heyday half a century ago, the teenage Fosse would cut classes at Amundsen High to visit the Oriental and other downtown venues, hoping to pick up tricks of the trade from touring stars like the real “Bojangles,” Bill Robinson.) These are perfect Fosse dancers, consistently superb technically yet far too idiosyncratic to blend into an anonymous chorus line; even in the biggest group numbers, each performer suggests an engaging yet enigmatic personality. Fosse’s work had dramatic depth as well as sexy sizzle, though he tended to hold his emotions in, creating a unique tension that this cast captures with perfectly measured energy. In addition to the performers I’ve already named, standouts include John Carroll, Linda Bowen, Dylis Croman, April Nixon, and Rick Delancy; but the whole crew is topflight. The starkly beautiful design by Santo Loquasto (sets and costumes) and Andrew Bridge (lights) frames the dancers exquisitely, while the crack band led by Don York drives them forward with irresistible power.

The dancers’ incredible skill is matched by their obvious passion for what they’re doing; indeed, the show is clearly a labor of love for all concerned. The serious purpose evident in the choice and arrangement of material and the intricate craftsmanship of the dances make Fosse thought-provoking, moving theatrical art as well as exhilarating entertainment.

The Trouble With Peggy:

Pieces of Guggenheim

at the Blue Rider Theatre

By Justin Hayford

Sometimes ambition does itself in. Peggy Guggenheim, perhaps America’s most influential champion of modern art, had enough ambition to do herself in several times over. Whether she did or not is open to debate. In amassing one of the most significant art collections of the 20th century, did she achieve greatness or merely surround herself with it, leaving her own potential undeveloped? In launching the careers of Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, was she setting renegade aesthetic standards or simply buying up what others knew to be great? In pursuing cavalier affairs with many of the century’s most important artists, was she staking her claim as a “modern woman” or running from emotional commitment? One thing is clear: by the time she died in 1979 at age 80, she’d spent years rattling around in her Venetian museum-palazzo, hated by the locals and abandoned by her children, with only her Lhasa apso terriers, her memories of abusive or indifferent lovers, and slews of gawking tourists and celebrities to keep her company.

The trouble with Peggy is obvious, at least on one level: the most meaningful relationships she formed were with paintings, yet her love of objects left her profoundly dissatisfied. In her ambitious one-woman show, The Trouble With Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim, Donna Blue Lachman drives this point home. Her Peggy Guggenheim leaps from seduction to seduction, art gallery to art gallery, European capital to European capital in a desperate attempt to become “necessary.” But she encounters little but disappointment, her superfluity brought into higher relief each time a new husband yawns or another art gallery closes. The only time she feels necessary is when she’s buying passage out of Nazi-occupied France for friends and associates. But in the most heartbreaking moment of Lachman’s 90-minute piece, she realizes that her money is necessary, not her. Anyone with a large enough trust fund could have done what she did.

It would seem that this poor little rich girl’s tale of ambition without purpose would translate easily to the stage. But one enormous obstacle stands in the way: the trouble with Peggy is that she’s a monumental bore.

The proof is in her autobiography, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, first published in 1946 and revised twice. This tome is so full of trivialities it’s a marvel Guggenheim managed to keep her own interest and finish it. By her own admission, her life was a string of impulsive trysts, adolescent emotional outbursts, drunken spats, buying sprees, new hairdos, and extended vacations. Here is a woman so bored during her first cruise down the Nile that she bought a pregnant goat in hopes of watching it give birth. Here is a woman who gives the reader a clearer picture of her dogs than of her children. And here is a woman who imagines that people will be interested in the most mundane aspects of her life, like this description of a day spent with a lover: “After lunch we went to buy a rug for our entrance hall….He had to finish a quarterly article he did for an art paper. We had dinner together and went to see For Whom the Bell Tolls. Afterward we went home and read some poetry.”

Perhaps a factor in the book’s triviality is Guggenheim’s utter lack of discrimination. Everything is equally important in her eyes, from the personalities of her pet ponies to the rules of Andre Breton’s parlor games to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. She seems to float through life in a self-absorbed bubble, unable to understand the gravity of anything that doesn’t affect her personally; she mentions the attack on Pearl Harbor because around that time she was thinking about getting married again. She can even write without a trace of irony of her exodus from German-occupied Paris that “it was strange getting out of France, and at the frontier I was searched from head to foot, naked. It was wonderful to be free of the Gestapo and to enjoy life again.”

Most curious of all, in 385 pages she never once mentions why she thinks modern art matters, or even why it excites her. The consuming passion of her life seems to have been almost accidental; she admits early in the book that when she came into her inheritance she thought she might open an art gallery or start a publishing house. This enormous hole at the center of her memoir turns her into a casual onlooker of her own life.

In bringing Guggenheim to the stage, Lachman draws heavily on Out of This Century, and perhaps her most intelligent choice is to dramatize rather than try to compensate for the spiritual emptiness that pervades the book. Her Peggy never seems to understand what matters in life; her moral compass spins randomly throughout the evening. At times that randomness makes the show monotonous; hopping from cafe table to cafe table breathlessly chronicling the heiress’s love affairs with Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, and Yves Tanguy in Paris in the 20s, Lachman is merely repeating herself, substituting enthusiasm for craft. But at other times she exploits Guggenheim’s shallowness to chilling effect. Describing how Andre Breton explained the meaning of “gang rape” to her 14-year-old daughter at a drunken party, Lachman laughs uncontrollably as though recalling a cute childhood prank. And in a heart-stopping moment of understatement, she talks about trainloads of refugees from Nazism rolling into Paris “in the direst misery and with bodies that had been machine-gunned en route.” She stares across the stage at an imaginary train for a moment, then simply says, “I can’t imagine why I didn’t go to the aid of all these unfortunate people. But I just didn’t.”

Despite Lachman’s best efforts, she can’t escape the one-thing-after-another drudgery of Guggenheim’s memoir. Structuring the show as a chronological life story told in flashbacks leaves Lachman chained to a rather flat narrative; the press release’s promise of a “swirling, cubist vision” is sadly unfulfilled. At times Lachman breaks up the story by showing video interviews with Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock–all played by Lachman, and all attempting to explain the trouble with Peggy. Lachman’s acting in the videos is much more nuanced and bold than most of her performance onstage, and the interviews never fail to entertain. But they provide only momentary respites from the uneventful narrative, like rest areas on an interstate freeway.

Sadly the production’s rather grandiose design feels like an attempt to inject excitement into the evening. Jeff Bauer and John Boesche have transformed the semidumpy Blue Rider Theatre into a clean, multifunctional modernist playground: images are projected on blank canvases suspended in midair around a huge multilayered stage. But in keeping with Guggenheim’s life, this ambitious design nearly does itself in. Boesche often lights Bauer’s grand stage in such a harsh, white wash that it loses all its allure. His lights even wash out his own projections at times, making some of the greatest masterpieces of modern art look like pastel wallpaper. Through it all, the live performer seems too often an afterthought.

Like the woman herself, The Trouble With Peggy hasn’t found its reason for being. Lachman hasn’t yet created the urgency that will drive the show; her Guggenheim doesn’t need to tell her life story. It may be a good start to chronicle Guggenheim’s quest to feel necessary, but that story line disappears halfway through. Tellingly, in the evening’s opening scene Guggenheim wanders back and forth in her Venice home for a good ten minutes talking about nothing in particular. Part of the problem is Terry McCabe’s lackadaisical staging of the scene, but even if he’d provided the most thrilling stage pictures, there would still be little worth listening to. This opening sets exactly the wrong tone for an actor hoping to discover the path through a life defined by ennui.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Marcus.