"Big Deal" really is one, but not in the way you might expect. Last night's dazzlingly showy new musical at the Broadway is a brilliant Bob Fosse dance suite, strung together mainly with revitalized Tin Pan Alley hits complementing an Americanized version of the 30-year-old Italian film caper, "Big Deal on Madonna Street."
The dancing is so supreme that, given some tightening, "Big Deal" could easily deserve a place in dance repertoire on the caliber of Balanchine's Gershwin tribute, "Who Cares?"
Those familiar with the 1956 Italian film will recall that "Big Deal" was a spoof on the caper movies in vogue at the time, and dealt with the bungled efforts of a handful of stumblebums to pull off a grand theft.
The happy-go-lucky plot is retained here, but minimized, and set now in Chicago during the Depression. And with two terrific dancing narrators - Wayne Cilento and Bruce Anthony Davis - setting the scenes, Fosse's "Big Deal" is like the cheery side of the coin whose pitted surface he exposed in the musical "Chicago."
He uses songs popular in the '30s, often in fragments - and now and then in full - but always rhythmically modified. These versions are strikingly arranged (no doubt in close collaboration with Fosse) by Ralph Burns and splendidly played (though one could object to the overly heavy miking) by the orchestra, under Gordon Lowry Harrell.
The moral, screechingly sung by Lilly (Loretta Devine) at the start and reprised by her at the close of both acts, is the 1931 "George White's Scandals" number, "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." Elsewhere - except for the Kern film song "Pick Yourself Up" and Broadway's "Button Up Your Overcoat" - the songs are the cheap, often oddly memorable, pop currency of another day.
The song list is long and, as I say, mostly fragmented, but Fosse has extended joy with a prisoners' chorus done to "Ain't We Got Fun." The absolutely sensational, almost hair-raising, peak is reached with a long ensemble dance to, of all things, "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar."
But then - and that's precisely why "Big Deal" must be regarded in balletic terms - the entire evening is choreographed. Almost all the actions of the guys and dolls as they slither and spin about in Peter Larkin's wonderfully flexible and imaginative scenic designs, incomparably lighted by Jules Fisher, are dance movements. At one point in the course of their majestically clumsy robbery attempt, the four out-of-their-league grifters are called upon to slide down a rope from the balcony edge to the stage.
Cleavant Derricks plays Charley (song cue: "Charley My Boy"), an inept boxer who inherits a cellmate's plan for cracking a sale, and he is as engaging a loser as you could ask for. Devine is fine as the sassy housemaid who falls for Charley. But Desiree Coleman's vocalizing, which climbs heights you'd suspect were audible only to dogs, is the most spectacular in her brief fling with "Ain't She Sweet."
And oh, those individual dances! The soft-shoe trio (Dancin' Dan & Shadows) to "Me and My Shadow"; the table-top tapping of Alde Lewis Jr. to "Hold Tight, Hold Tight"; the swaying of Willie as he croons to the infant in his arms ("Everybody Loves My Baby"). And, of course, there's a snatch from "Chicago" of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" - and that isn't the half of it.
The entire cast, so niftily dressed by Patricia Zipprodt, is first-rate.
"Big Deal" represents Fosse at his inimitable best, and whadayya know? Broadway is Broadway again.
This is the Big Deal - Broadway's most expensive, expansive, not to say costly and large, musical of the season:
A woman is on a high platform, hazily lost in a shroud of swirling white smoke. Spotlights are shooting up behind her, slashing the black backcloth with bars of light. She is singing in a voice dusty with irony, tinged with a memory of pain, husky with routine. The song - made into a sad-funny anthem for a Depression America - is Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.
We sit back and relax: we are safely in the rollercoaster magic-world of a Bob Fosse musical. Then the thing grinds to a falter. Or rather, the musical itself starts.
The trouble with Big Deal is that it ain't.
This new Fosse musical, which opened last night at the Broadway Theater, has all the eclat of a pickled cucumber in a sandstorm. It is only interesting in an uninteresting sort of a way.
This prefabricated computerization of '30s music and memories is all glue and no show. Or perhaps it is all show and no glue. In any event they are the wrong glue and the wrong show, and nothing hangs together.
There is a gaping hole where the parts should be, the hole is bigger than the parts, and the evening falls through it.
But this is not a failure that has been achieved without effort. Rarely, even on Broadway, have so many worked so hard for so little.
Mr. Fosse has tried to do a musical without a composer or a lyricist, with a book spatchcocked together by himself from that Italian mini-classic movie Big Deal on Madonna Street, starring Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni.
Almost anyone - one of the ushers, for example, or even a producer - could have told him it wouldn't work. But presumably no one had the nerve until it didn't and then it was too late.
In a way the small dealings of Big Deal are an extension of what Fosse did with such wondrous success in his musical Dancin'. But there, there was no book - just choreography - and the musical stood up as a dance-revue. Big Deal has no such luck; even the dancing comes in more fits than starts.
First, how bad is the book? Pretty bad. The story is over complex for a musical, with more subplots than Shakespeare would handle; the humors are not particularly susceptible to musicalization; the ending is downbeat, which no amount of upbeat coda-like curtain-calls can disguise; and the whole treatment is essentially amateurish.
Amateurish? Could Bob Fosse, of all of Broadway's reigning princes, be fairly accused of amateurism? Not normally, I agree, and believe me, even in Big Deal there is enough gloss and expertise to make most directors break their hearts out and cook them for breakfast.
But he does not have an instinctive hand with a book, or, if you prefer, a libretto. The songs don't unobtrusively segue into the story, there is no flow. Drama and music - as authorities as varied as Verdi's Boito and Broadway's Peter Stone agree - never come together as they must.
And then there is the issue of context. Fosse's basic idea was to take a hit-parade medley of songs from the '30s, one of classic-pop's golden ages, and merge them into a narrative musical.
It's a lousy basic idea. At best you could get a dramatic collage - but a collage works by contrast. A musical (or any piece of lyric theater be it opera or ballet) works from collaboration.
The songs are mostly terrific. There were enough to choose from. But they are there, as the song immediately after that one about the cherries reminds us, For No Good Reason at All.
Example. The heroine says she has a boyfriend called "Harry." Cue for song: "I'm just wild about Harry." Had he been called Jim or Bill, we would have had different songs. One feels that if Fosse had paid Jerry Herman the right money, the guy could have been called "Dolly" and given us another cue.
One strange thing about this sadsack saga of smalltime crooks who couldn't caper through an unattended jewelry store or vault through an open bank, is that it offers comparatively little opportunity for the speciality of Fosse's house - dance.
A discouraged and discouraging boxer, Charley (Cleavant Derricks), finds himself appointed gangleader, after inveigling from an imprisoned Big Boss, Kokomo (Gary Chapman), information for a surefire heist, at the head of a nicely motley band.
There is a bellicose Slick (Larry Marshall); a romantically inclined Sunnyboy (Mel Johnson Jr.), who finds true love with Slick's sister Phoebe (Desiree Coleman), a wimpish Otis (Alde Lewis Jr.), who regrets he can never have enough to eat, and, most important, Willie (Alan Weeks), who carries his baby son - of course, everybody loves his baby! - everywhere, and cannot rob on Thursdays because of babysitter problems.
Things start to go wrong when Charley falls in love with Lilly (Loretta Devine), the lady for whom life is just a bowl of cherries and is wild about Harry.
And so it continues. Dead horses are rarely revived by flogging but that has never stopped anyone.
Mr. Fosse does everything a superhuman could do. He tries to solve his narrative problem with - shades of Joel Grey's emcee in Cabaret - a couple of dancing narrators (the ever nimble Wayne Cilento and Bruce Anthony Davis), and he has his cast whizzing down slides, even careening on a perilous wire across the orchestra.
And the cues for songs come nudging in, each more clumsy than the last. And the regurgitated plot gurgles and sputters. And the oldies try to make like newies with fairly fresh orchestrations by Ralph Burns.
But the experienced Burns has the insurmountable task of imposing some coherent and authentic signature on this diffuse, many-handed score. Unfortunately Fosse fiddles while Ralph burns.
Jules Fisher's lighting is superb, although as its Executive Producer he might have done us a greater favor than merely lighting the show. As usual Patricia Zipprodt's costumes are glitzy without being cheap (nothing is cheap about Big Deal!) and Peter Larkin's scenery, look out for his proscenium screens at the side of the beautifully refurbished (thank you, Shuberts!) Broadway Theater, is as stylish as ever.
The performances are delightful and brave. I particularly liked Derrick's blundering, baffled, buffoonish, and vainglorious Charley, Miss Devine was divine as Lilly, Desiree Coleman had the cutest little voice as Phoebe, and Fosse has not lost his touch in providing a chorus line and all that jazz which looks and dances like an affectionately inclined sex machine.
But Big Deal remains much ado about nothing. And short change.
For a generation, one of the few durable thrills of the constantly eroding Broadway musical has been the choreography of Bob Fosse. With the death of Gower Champion, Mr. Fosse may now be the last active theater choreographer who knows how to assemble an old-fashioned, roof-raising show stopper in which every step bears the unmistakable signature of its creator. ''Big Deal,'' the new Fosse musical at the Broadway, contains exactly one of those show stoppers, and attention must be paid. If only for 10 minutes or so just before the end of Act I, Mr. Fosse makes an audience remember what is (and has been) missing from virtually every other musical in town.
The number is set to the old song ''Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar,'' and it unfolds in a Chicago ballroom of the 1930's called (need I tell you?) Paradise. There's a big band on a platform, and, somewhere in the blackness below, are two song-and-dance men (the frisky Bruce Anthony Davis and Wayne Cilento) slithering in flickering silver light. The men's shoulders start to roll, their elbows sharpen, their hands hang limp even as the rest of their bodies gyrate at hard angles. And, just as these gentlemen seem to have merged with the high notes blared by the raucous horns above them, they are joined by a large chorus of bubbly revelers, who, by crossing the stage on a jagged diagonal, somehow manage to liberate both the show and the audience from conventional burdens of time, space and care.
The dizzying sense of levitation that Mr. Fosse achieves in this dance is one of those unquantifiable elements - like the house lights dimming during the final stretch of an exciting overture - that defined the Broadway musical when it really was a going concern. The disappointment of ''Big Deal'' is that even Mr. Fosse, one of the form's last magicians, can conjure up that joy so rarely. There are some other pleasurable passages in this musical - period songs (or snatches of them) agreeably sung or danced by talented performers - but this is a mostly lackluster effort that often seems to be lumbering clumsily about. By the plot-heavy shank of Act II, ''Big Deal'' has congealed to the point where not even the second-best full-company number, a gospel version of ''I'm Sitting on Top of the World'' led by the ebullient Cleavant Derricks, can shake the blues away.
Much, though far from all, of what's gone wrong is that old bugaboo of old-fashioned book musicals - the book. Mr. Fosse, who manfully takes credit for writing this one, began with a not unpromising idea. ''Big Deal'' is ''Big Deal on Madonna Street,'' the 1958 comic caper film, transposed to South Side Chicago of the Depression and equipped with vintage songs largely of that pop heyday. In place of Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman and the rest of their Italian gang that couldn't shoot straight is a quintet of unemployed black men (led by Mr. Derricks, as a failed boxer) who hope to find happy days by cracking a safe.
Given that Mr. Fosse has staged some of Broadway's funniest musicals, such as ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'' and ''Little Me,'' it's hard to understand how the book of ''Big Deal'' grew to be ponderous and cheerless. A tiny farcical anecdote is dragged out to such convoluted lengths that the hapless robbery scheme begins to rival the Normandy invasion in heavy logistic detail.
The dull preliminaries that precede the actual crime - among them, the theft of a camera, the securing of a safecracker and some keys - are endless, only to be exceeded in tedium by the attenuated enactment of the heist itself. Along the way, there's a pro forma comic love story for Mr. Derricks and Loretta Devine (playing a domestic who's the keeper of the keys), as well as a maudlin one for a star-crossed young couple who inexplicably seem to have wandered in from ''West Side Story.'' The crude, lame jokes, some of which are as discomfortingly patronizing as ''Amos 'n' Andy,'' include sight gags featuring baby pacifiers and urinals.
Although Mr. Fosse keeps the show on the move, and, for the robbery, exploits a ''Cats''-style catwalk along the mezzanine, the cinematic staging techniques are of little use when the story being told is static and mirthless. The set, designed by Peter Larkin, spreads more gloom. While ''Big Deal'' wants to be an airy period pastiche musical of the frolicsome ''My One and Only'' sort, it unfolds in a somber modernist black box decorated with some forbidding scaffolding, a halfhearted sliding platform (under which the dancers are often pointlessly caged in) and a few neon signs. This Chicago is a variation on Tony Walton's design for Mr. Fosse's 20's ''Chicago,'' but with all the glamour and style removed. As fussily but grimly lighted by Jules Fisher, the gaping dark space looks more suitable for a hanging than a comedy.
Such humor as there is comes in the dancing. Mr. Fosse has conceived ''Ain't We Got Fun'' as a shuffling chorus line for a prison chain gang. ''Me and My Shadow'' gives us the dancers Gary Chapman, Valarie Pettiford and Barbara Yeager in the choreographer's latest replica of his undying ''Pajama Game'' show stopper, ''Steam Heat.'' Alde Lewis Jr., the pipsqueak of the men, joins four of the sexiest female dancers for a tap fantasy of wealth (''Hold Tight, Hold Tight'') set in a seafood restaurant where lobsters can be ordered by the tank.
Other numbers - including such potentially rousing songs as ''Pick Yourself Up,'' ''Chicago'' and ''Love Is Just Around the Corner'' - seem truncated, lest they impinge on the deathless book. Still others are distorted by either the coarse amplification or the synthesizer-laden rap-and-disco arrangements that self-destructively sabotage the 30's idiom of the dancing, the snazzy Patricia Zipprodt costumes and the choices of songs themselves. (If a musical is going to use old standards - a second-class substitute for an exciting new score to start with - why mutilate them?) The best singing is the least electronically adorned - that of Alan Weeks, Larry Marshall, Bernard J. Marsh, Mel Johnson and, most notably, the petite Desiree Coleman, whose huge voice flies into the gospel stratosphere.
Mr. Derricks and Miss Devine, a wonderful pair in ''Dreamgirls,'' are less captivating here - not in the least because they are asked to mug and, in the leading lady's case, to shriek some lines and lyrics in a manner perilously reminiscent of Butterfly McQueen. But Miss Devine's comic sense eventually shines through her oversold ''I'm Just Wild About Harry,'' and Mr. Derricks's talent and spectacular charm win many more rounds than the down-and-out boxer he plays. These are performers of the breed who used to be transformed into stars by the best Bob Fosse musicals. At ''Big Deal,'' we can very dimly recall what those glorious shows felt like, even as we must contemplate yet again how subsequent Broadway musical history has been so unkind.