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'Fosse/Verdon' review: Disappointing portrait of two show-biz legends

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Michelle Williams as

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon in FX's "Fosse/Verdon." Credit: FX/Eric Liebowitz


WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Dancer/choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer/actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) were Broadway superstars, also married from 1960 to 1987 when he died. But their marriage was fraught nearly from the start, because of his womanizing, and they spent many of those years apart, which were also some of the most productive ones for both. This eight-parter — produced by Tony-winner Thomas Kail ("In The Heights," "Hamilton,"), along with Steven Levenson, Joel Fields and Lin-Manuel Miranda — covers five tumultuous decades in their lives.

MY SAY There was a time when "Fosse" was a household name, and not just in theater households either. The most acclaimed choreographer in the world had become the most acclaimed director, and in the event that acclaim hadn't sufficiently sunk in, Fosse produced his own Oscar-nominated biopic ("All That Jazz") which gilded the legacy.

By contrast, Verdon's glory years and most of the Tonys seemed behind her. It wasn't fair and it isn't fair but the word "fairness" never appeared on any Equity card. By the early '70s, she had been the greatest. The world had moved on, as it brutally tended to do for actresses who had arrived in middle age.

 Enter ""Fosse/Verdon," which corrects the record, then over-corrects it. Williams gets the better role and gives the better performance. Poor Sam Rockwell gets the beast of Broadway. His Fosse is an inconsequential bore, with the libido and bedside manner of an orangutan and the charisma of a wet noodle. A wispy comb-over completes the desolate portrait. No one will confuse this with hagiography.

 For that reason — and there are others — "Fosse/Verdon" can be hard to watch, harder to like. The production insists the audience arrive with their impressions already formed, and their command of Broadway history, at bare minimum, adequate. It helps to know that "Can-Can" was one of Verdon's first smashes, better to know Fosse came after (Michael Kidd was choreographer). "Fosse/Verdon" doesn't want to ladle out the traditional biopic, of the type that starts at the beginning and ends at the end.

 Because Fosse and Verdon hooked up in the middle of their respective careers, "Fosse/Verdon" begins in the middle, too. Under any circumstance, that's a challenging starting point, as much for producers as viewers, and to fill in the back story, the first few episodes tend to be supercuts — flashforwards, flashbacks and the occasional flash-sidways. To orient viewers, screen cards abruptly arrive at transition points to tell them what's going on, sort of — "New York, 263 days until Gwen Verdon's first Tony," as an example.

 These lives thus become blurs, their stories too. While that may be the whole point, the constant cutaways rob "Fosse/Verdon" of momentum and emotion. Why should you care about Fosse or Verdon? This sometimes grim, sometimes self-abnegating production offers no easy answers.

 Why you should really care of course, should be obvious enough. There's a taste of those incandescent gifts — a nice performance by Williams of "Who's Got the Pain" from "Damn Yankees," for example — but a taste does not make a meal. "Fosse/Verdon" is a claustrophobic series as opposed to an epic one. What's mostly missing is the thrill of opening night, the chorus line, the music, the whole glorious space of the theater. That's what made these two such vital meta-humans in the first place.

 But here they're reduced to scale. They're average people with above-average talent dealing with love, sex and betrayal.

 FX offered the first five episodes for review (and "Chicago" is still to come). This could get better, and in fact does. The best episode easily is the fifth — a long, rainy night spent in a Southampton beach house while Verdon tries get Fosse's wandering attention focused on their next big project. Unfortunately, to get to this you've got to get through a long, rainy night first.

BOTTOM LINE Disappointing.

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