Dallas — “I close my eyes, and only dancers appear on the horizon,” says dancer/choreographer Bob Fosse in an opening scene of Razz, written by and starring Mitchell Parrack, and directed by Matthew Posey in its world premiere at Ochre House Theater.
Fosse, the only person ever to have won Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards in the same year (1973), left a lasting mark on musical theater by shaping a number of dance moves. In fact, he won eight Tonys for his choreography, alone. When you see turned-in knees, rolled shoulders, sideways shuffles and “jazz hands,” gloved and snapping fingers spotlighted to lure you in, you’re feeling the Fosse beat. His signature style was vividly present in the stage musical Chicago in 1973 and the movie Cabaret in 1972.
Fosse was also noted for his addiction to alcohol, pills and chorus girls. He died of a heart attack at 60 in 1987. His personal life inspired the 1975 film All That Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Fosse himself. In the film, as in this year’s FX Fosse/Verdon mini-series, the emphasis is on the creative and romantic bundle of vibes and explosions between the legendary choreographer and his stunning red-headed third wife and all-time mega-muse, Gwen Verdon.
Parrack’s play, which includes eight unremarkable songs written by Parrack with music composed by music director Justin Locklear, mostly covers the same territory. Razz opens the inspiration door further and presents three major female muses in Fosse’s work. All dance together throughout the show in a kind of mini-chorus line, singing songs about how they hate loving Bob, or can’t help loving Bob, or they are just tired of it all, a feeling expressed in the last song at the end of Act I, titled “The Never-Lasting Number.”
Fosse, played by Parrack with feline body quickness coupled with stretches of emotional detachment sitting on a ladder stage right, looks back on his work under the gaze of two other show-biz guys. Bert, a devilish sidekick (based on Bertolt Brecht) played by a teasing and confrontational Chris Sykes, evokes Kurt Weill’s influence on Fosse's work and pokes at Bob about where his ideas really come from. Paddy, a playwright with huge black spectacles (based on screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky), played with subtle comic style by Brian Witkowicz encourages Bob to just smoke another cigarette and listen to the sound of a carousel’s nostalgic rinky-dink music.
“Girls,” Fosse tells Paddy, “are the substance.” And in this play, they definitely carry the show. Long-suffering and still smiling Elizabeth Evans is Joan McCracken, Fosse’s second wife, TV-special dance partner, and still a fan of her feckless ex. Beth Gilvie, pissed-off and seductive at once in a tousled red wig, is an in-charge Gwen Verdon. Dark haired and hip-thrusting Lauren Massey is Ann Reinking, Fosse’s longtime mistress, a woman Verdon apparently tolerated and advised. Verdon and Fosse never divorced, and she was present when he died.
The most fun of the show is in the trio of women, outfitted by costumer Amie Carson in bustiers, fishnet stockings and black bowler hats, stepping stage center and singing about their common experience in “The Ex Number.” We see the stylized “jazz hands” move evolve in a particular sequence, and we hear Ann and Gwen duke it out in “The Numb Number,” in which the women challenge each other about who feels coldest and most scarred over when it comes to their relationships with Fosse. Grim song.
Director Posey links the many scenes and songs adroitly, but the play still feels somewhat drawn out. Parrack’s Fosse has little emotional shift from beginning to end, and so the play itself doesn’t present a rising and falling dramatic arc to carry us through the thrills and tribulations of the man and his multiple muses. A note of cynicism and manipulation prevails from start to finish. Female dancers inspire this version of Bob Fosse, but they also wear him out, coming and going, as it were. The choreographer, we understand, pushed himself to an early grave simply because he needed more affairs and more drugs and more fresh female bodies to move his art forward. “The Closing Number” in the two-hour show feels more like an exhausted finish than a clarifying closure. That may be the playwright’s gloomy intention in his exploration of Fosse’s life.
The solid musicians evoke the moment instrumentally and look the part. Seated stage left and wearing straw boaters with glittering red bands, they are attentive to the action and intensify the mood with a note or an aside on the strings. On opening night, the amplification of the band overwhelmed some voices in the first act, although the volume was corrected in the second act. The musicians are Kate Fisher on keyboards, Gregg Prickett on guitar and Tanner Patterson on drums.
Scenic artist IZK Davies covers the walls of the stage with red brick wallpaper, surrounding the small window of the warehouse rehearsal space where everything happens. Ochre House Theater’s company, housed in a 1930’s brick storefront and constantly pushing themselves to create and perform original plays, is a perfect setting for a show about the pressures of finding a muse to make it happen, over and over and over. Fosse would feel their pain.