The production of Bob Fosse's Dancin' at National Theater has everything but heart.
It's not just simple egotism that led choreographer Fosse to put his name in front of that of the show, it's complicated and overwhelming egotism. The talented and energetic dancers are not out there dancing, they are reciting steps and gestures Fosse has specified down to the last detail.
After years of study and sweat, the payoff for a dancer is the fierce joy of creation, the disciplined body responding almost unconsciously to the sprit. The very finest dancers seem almost as graceful and unstudied as children; it shows in every movement and especially in their eyes.
What seems to show in the eyes of a Fosse dancer is fear of making an unauthorized move. Although Fosse himself is not directing this road company, the choreography of the original Broadway show has been all too faithfully recreated by Gail Benedict, who has been with Dancin' since the beginning. Fosse's authority is certified by a closet full of Tonys, Emmys and Academy Awards, and nobody trifles with it.
The one exception opening night was Stella Hiatt, who not only was outstanding in execution, whether her part of the moment was featured or in the chorus, but obviously was thoroughly enjoying herself. This no doubt will be corrected.
Some of the lack of life in this relentlessly lively show could be laid to the strain of opening night, but most must be credited to Fosse. His heavy hand is evident at every turn: This movement follows that one, not because it's logical or flows, but because he said do it that way. Some sequences are so forced it hurts.
The terms are announced at the very beginning, when we are told there is no plot to the show: We're on the TV and computer age now, folks, so don't try to get involved, just sit back and watch.
This is soon followed by a "tribute" to Bojangles in which, although the Spirit of Bill Robinson is invoked in song and embodied onstage, the real spirit and essence of this late genius of dance is utterly absent. So much for you, Pal.
In Act II, William H. Brown Jr. is almost allowed to express himself in "I've Got Them Feelin' Too Good Today Blues," but the effect is constrained by meaningless business -- Fosse is nothing if not busy, busy, busy -- and dissipated by going on at least a third too long.
In case we still haven't gotten the point, this is immediately followed by "Fourteen Feet," in which the dancers' shoes are symbolically nailed to the stage. Don't ask why the caged bird sings.
In Act III, after Fosse has disposed of Benny Goodman, and by implication all that other jazz, Hiatt, Barbara McKinley, Karen E. Fraction and Jo-Ann Baldo break through with the engaging "Female Star Spot." From there the show begins to pick up, but by then it's awful late in the evening.
DANCIN' -- At the National Through August 9.