BWW Review: Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams Share Passions For Dance and For Each Other in FOSSE/VERDON
White letters on a black screen introduce the place and time of an early scene in FX's limited series "Fosse/Verdon" as "Hollywood, 19 years left."
And throughout the first episode, scripted by Steven Levenson and directed by Thomas Kail, changes in time are designated as countdowns to the heart attack that killed Bob Fosse in 1987, an apt device for telling the story of a musical theatre and film director/choreographer who kept digging for the pain that was covered by smiles.
"That's what we do, isn't it?" he asks his star and soon-to-be wife, Gwen Verdon, between cigarette drags while creating a dance number that will save their new show's first act finish. "We take what hurts and we turn it into a big gag. And we're singing and we're dancing and the audience, they're yucking it up. They're laughing so hard they don't realize that all they're laughing at is a person in agony; a person who's peeling off his own skin."
The first two episodes, released to the press in advance, shine the spotlight more brightly on Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell as a man of quiet confidence who deals with his disappointment in not becoming a star performer by making stars of others.
Part one primarily covers the time when Fosse got his first film directing gig, making a movie of his Broadway hit SWEET CHARITY, with Shirley MacLaine (briefly seen Laura Osnes) playing the role Verdon created for the stage. Despite its financial failure, he talks his way into nabbing the job of directing the film of CABARET, starring Liza Minnelli (spot on Kelli Barrett). It's the success of this project that will turn the public's perception of the couple from him being Gwen Verdon's husband to her being Bob Fosse's wife, a change that's suggested with two references to their married names.
At this point Michelle Williams' portrayal of Gwen Verdon is that of dutiful wife supporting her husband's career and dealing with his infidelities while caring for their young daughter. Where she shows real star quality is as an acting teacher, exemplified by when she explains the subtext of "Big Spender" to a dancer who is just doing the moves assigned to her.
When the "Cabaret" costume designer comes up with a "funny" gorilla costume for "If You Can See Her," it's the teacher Verdon who explains why going for the wrong laughs will compromise the song's impact, and the loyal wife Verdon who volunteers to fly from Germany to New York, find an appropriate costume and bring it back to Germany within the film schedule's 3-day deadline.
The second episode takes us back to, as the white letters on the black screen tell us, "New York, 263 days since Gwen Verdon's 1st Tony Award." At a lunch meeting with Harold Prince (Evan Handler) Broadway's newest star flippantly refers to Fosse as "the one with the hats" when he's proposed to choreograph her first above-the-title vehicle, DAMN YANKEES.
But an initial meeting (audition) in a studio where they work out the dancing for "Whatever Lola Wants" shows them to be on the same artistic wavelength, as they expand the number from being a mere seduction to an exploration of the character's insecurities.
Naturally, recreations of original performances of classic stage/film musical moments enhance "Fosse/Verdon." The first two episodes include performances of "Big Spender," "Mein Heir," "Heart" and "Who's Got The Pain?"
Broadway regulars will appear in roles throughout the series, with the first two episodes spotlighting BIANCA Marroquin as Chita Rivera, Byron Jennings as George Abbott and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Richard Adler.
Theatre fans will also appreciate inside references, such as the unenthusiastic response Prince receives when he describes the plot of the new musical he's working on with "Steve" and his jab that Verdon was probably the only person who liked "the one he did with Dick."
While smart writing and handsome production values will make "Fosse/Verdon" unmissable for musical theatre enthusiasts, the first quarter of the series leans towards being a familiar artist/muse love story. Hopefully, the rest of the series will expand on its depiction of Gwen Verdon and present her as a great artist who, being a woman, found herself out of demand as she grew older.
Watch the trailer for Fosse/Verdon ahead of its April 9th premiere on FX below!
Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn and Eric Liebowitz/FX