This is a review based on the opening episodes of FX’s limited series.
“The minute you walked in the joint, I could see you were a man of distinction…” So begins the signature song from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, and so begins Fosse/Verdon, FX’s new drama about the mastermind behind it: Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), director-choreographer extraordinaire. From the minute we walk into the joint, all sweat, cigarettes and stamping feet, it becomes clear that’s anything but a man of distinction: a spender, yes, but of other people’s money, time and emotions.
Nowhere is that clearer than in his relationship with Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Dancer, actor, Tony Award winner and muse, she glistens on stage and screen, all smiles and showbiz – at least, when an audience is watching. Based on Sam Wasson’s biography of Fosse, Steven Levenson and Thomas Kail’s series charts the course of their rocky partnership, both professionally and personally. It’s a dynamic that’s fascinating to see them bring to life, burrowing into the nuances of their shifting power dynamics, while each of them experience their own individual rises and falls.
Sam Rockwell is brilliant, delivering the kind of leading man performance that his supporting roles always promise. He’s seedy, sad and slimy as much as he is shrewdly artistic: he seems to know what he wants, just as much as he knows he won’t compromise with anyone else to get it. The more producer Cy Feuer (an excellent Paul Reiser) questions the lighting of each scene, or why Fosse’s still rehearsing without rolling the cameras, the more Bob digs in his heels and scratches his thinning hair.
But Bob’s also a man plagued by self-doubt, and what initially appears to be an innate instinct partly turns out to be the intuition of Gwen: she understands exactly what he wants, and needs, and they trust each other to achieve it together. And so, while he ruthlessly drills his dancers through each number, she flies out and back at short notice to get the infamous gorilla costume for Cabaret. She assists, massages and empowers his ego, with the same flare and purpose that drove her audition for Damn Yankees years earlier – an audition sequence that crackles wth electricity and confidence.
If Rockwell is good, Williams is even better, bringing Verdon to life with a graceful, playful air while finding the difficult balance between loyalty and a tough self-respect. That balance smartly drives the tone of the show, which makes sure we feel sorry for her, but never for Fosse, no matter how convincing Rockwell is. She helps us understand his charismatic gravity that sucked in those around him, but we’re not drawn into it ourselves, orbiting with enough distance to see his flaws.
It’s a shame, then, that Fosse/Verdon doesn’t always give its eponymous double-act the platform their impeccable character work deserves. The series repeatedly flashes back and forwards througho their career and relationship. That means we repeatedly see Bob’s chronic inability to be faithful to a partner, whether it’s with a translator in Berlin or Gwen herself, whom he met while married to Broadway darling Joan McCracken. But it also means that some of the key moments in their tempestuous timeline – including one key moment where she witnesses his latest infidelity – lose a bit of their impact.
“People aren’t going to the movies to escape,” one of our almost inseparable lead duo proclaims in the opening episodes. “They’re going to find something true.” With Levenson and Kail joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda as an exec-producer (and, briefly, a star), Fosse/Verdon certainly has the ability to put on a show, but you also wish some of that non-linear razzle-dazzle was put aside to get right to the point and give us a simpler glimpse of what’s going on in these two artists’ minds. If the show lacks the sharp focus and bite of FX’s similar Feud, though, there’s no doubting this is sumptuously crafted television, a portrait of the glitzy lights and the murky shadows of Hollywood in the 60s, a showcase for two sensational performers, a tribute to the universal language of dance and power – and a snapshot of a couple who both spoke the same dialect.
Fosse/Verdon premieres at 9pm on BBC Two on Friday 2nd August 2019 and will be available as a full box set following its broadcast on BBC iPlayer.