Reviews

April 10, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Fosse/Verdon”

 

FOSSE/VERDON:  Tuesday 10PM on FX

A pair of shadows loom over FX’s limited series FOSSE/VERDON.  One is the ultra-meta fact that its story has to some extent been told by Bob Fosse himself, in his barely fictionalized 1979 masterpiece All That Jazz, all about a chain-smoking, pill-popping, self-destructive womanizer who was also a brilliant choreographer and film director driving himself to an early grave (the real grave would arrive less than 8 years after the film’s release).  That all described Fosse, of course, and his fictional counterpart had ruined a marriage with a renowned Broadway star who was the fictional approximation of Gwen Verdon.  The other shadow is the sociological fact that in 2019, there is increasing resistance to sagas about problematic men who treat women badly, even if they accomplished great work along the way.

With all that in mind, series creators Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail may have been a bit unwise in the focus they chose for the opening hour of Fosse/Verdon, which will hopscotch through the three decades of the couple’s life together.  The roughly 1968-1972 period covered, spanning Fosse’s direction of the movies Sweet Charity and Cabaret, play into bad-man tropes rather neatly at times, with Verdon left at home to take care of their daughter Nicole (a real-life Co-Executive Producer of the series) while Fosse works and plays in Munich.  In addition, flashbacks to young Fosse’s driven tapdancing are a bit on the All That Jazz nose.

Other episodes may play different notes.  Even with its burdens, much of the opener (written by Levenson from a story by he and Kail, and directed by Kail) is dazzling.  Both creators are Broadway veterans, respectively the book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen” and the director of “Hamilton,” and the recreation of the milieu is remarkable.  Despite the tapdancing flashbacks, the tone of Fosse/Verdon is for the most part very different from All That Jazz, concentrating on the painstaking work that goes into every facet of a creative enterprise.  It’s clear as well that the series intends to provide a more complicated view of the relationship between Fosse and Verdon that presenting him as a villain and her as a long-suffering victim.  The opening sequence, depicting their spoken and unspoken partnership on the direction and choreography of the “Hey Big Spender” number in Sweet Charity is filled with detail both visual and psychological.

FX has seemingly spared no expense on Fosse/Verdon, which features full-scale acsimiles of classic musical numbers, and also a cast wide enough to put actors like Norbert Leo Butz, Aya Cash, Nate Corddry, and Evan Handler in little more than bit roles, playing such luminaries of the era as Paddy Chayevsky and Neil Simon.  (Paul Reiser has more to do as Cy Feuer, who clashed with Fosse as the producer of Cabaret.)  Every technical detail is polished and precise.

None of this would matter, of course, without great performances in the leading roles, and it already seems time to clear off Emmy nomination room (at least) for Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams.  She is jaw-droppingly right as Gwen Verdon; much as with her Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, she has the surface aspects of the historical role entirely in her control, and adds to that layers of psychological complexity.  Rockwell has a slightly more difficult job, because Roy Scheider’s version of Fosse in All That Jazz has become canon, and so many of the mannerisms–the cigarette poking out a corner of his mouth, the restless movements–have to be repeated.  He plays against the hyper version of the character, offering a dark and subdued Fosse except in those moments when his work is living up to the ideas in his head.  It’s less thrilling than what Williams is doing, but an important counterpoint.

Fosse/Verdon seems good enough to blow past the preconceptions caused by its subject matter.  It’s exactly the kind of work that didn’t even exist on television until a few years ago, and that movies have all but abandoned.  For those in tune with its world, it’s sheer pleasure to watch.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on screened.com and the-burg.com. In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."




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