`Big Deal': Fosse's back on Broadway. Pop-song oldies propel musical

Big Deal Musical comedy written, directed, and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Based on the film ``Big Deal on Madonna Street.'' Strutting its extravagant stuff, ``Big Deal'' revels in the big delights of Bob Fosse's choreography. The dancers leap, gyrate, and slither with grace and abandon. The movement is dazzling. The new musical fable at the Broadway Theatre is at its best in motion and commotion.

Back on Broadway for the first time in eight years, Mr. Fosse is the star of the occasion. Besides providing the patented choreography, he also adapted the book (from the 1958 Italian film ``Big Deal on Madonna Street,'' with Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman), and directed the adaptation. The Broadway version transports the action to Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. The incompetent would-be criminals of the original farce have become an equally incompetent group of black Americans, led by a round-heeled pugilist named Charley (Cleavant Derricks).

Instead of an original score, Fosse amplifies his script with more than 20 pop-song oldies -- golden or at least gilded. In a burlesque courtroom scene, the judge intones, ``I've got a feelin' you're foolin'' to the conniving litigants. The prisoners in a jail sequence chorus ``Ain't We Got Fun,'' with rhythmic gyve effects. Tap-dancing Willie's (Alan Weeks) ``Everybody Loves My Baby'' celebrates his infant son. Lilly's ``I'm Just Wild About Harry,'' rousingly sung by Loretta Devine, is a ditty for a girl with an assortment of imaginary beaux. Gary Chapman, Valerie Pettiford, and Barbara Yeager give ``Me and My Shadow'' a triplicate effect. Near the end of the show, Fosse boldly recycles four yesteryear songs to express his bumbling burglars' fantasies.

The eclectic score is not always ideally served by the anachronistic Ralph Burns orchestrations, arranged and conducted by Gordon Lowry Harrell. Authenticity can be lost in rhythmic and electronic distortions. The music that ``goes round and round'' (to quote another Fosse borrowing) comes out best in the swinging renditions of the onstage Paradise Ballroom band.

Meanwhile, the story goes on and on. Besides the doomed pawnshop break-in, the plot concerns the romances of Charley and Lilly, and of Sunnyboy (Mel Johnson Jr.) and the winsome Phoebe (Desiree Coleman). In the course of the exposition -- and the elaborate sight gags of the floundering caper -- ``Big Deal'' loses some of the momentum the wonderful dancing has generated. In addition to those already mentioned, Wayne Cilento and Bruce Anthony Davis (the Narrators) are high on the credit list of a cast that features Larry Marshall, Alde Lewis Jr., and Bernard J. Marsh.

Peter Larkin's technically elaborate scenery and Jules Fisher's shadowy lighting do not help the production, but Patricia Zipprodt's costumes suit all occasions, from prize ring to jailhouse, from Chicago Southside motley to the silvery formals of the Paradise Ballroom. Wrestlers Play by Bill C. Davis. Directed by Geraldine Fitzgerald.

``Wrestlers'' begins with a fraternal confrontation and ends with a resolution -- but at a cost to its two contending brothers. Moving between present and past, between upstate New York and New York City, the new Bill C. Davis comedy comes to focus on the stage of the Hudson Guild Theatre. The estranged siblings are Monty (Mr. Davis) and Bobby (Dan Butler). As the play opens, Bobby has not been speaking to the younger Monty for a year. Monty seeks a reconcilation.

In the scenes that follow, Mr. Davis sketches in the background of a relationship marred in early years by Bobby's bullying of the persistently untidy Monty. Obnoxious though he proved as a roommate, however, Bobby showed the kind of bright-boy promise that led to hopes for a legal and political career. The hopes vanished when he flunked out of law school and settled for a department store personnel job.

The less-promising Monty moved to upstate New York, began working at a children's center, and set up housekeeping with Angie (Elizabeth Berridge), a pretty but immature young woman with a tiresome mother. When Monty prevails on a sobered Bobby to make a weekend visit, the inevitable starts to happen.

Mr. Davis has a number of twists and turns in store as the brothers' two-sided contest acquires a triangular formation, and Angie begins discovering her own potential. While ``Wrestlers'' lacks the robustness of his ``Mass Appeal,'' Mr. Davis employs the playwright's means to present three authentic young people in situations that can be believably funny as well as touching.

Responding sensitively to the nuances of the text, director Geraldine Fitzgerald provides the assured guidance that underwrites the excellent performances of Miss Berridge, Mr. Butler, and Mr. Davis. The production's all-purpose setting and lighting effects were designed by Paul Wonsek, and the costumes by Mary L. Hayes. ``Wrestlers'' is scheduled to run through April 27. Principia Scriptoriae Play by Richard Nelson. Directed by Lynne Meadow.

Shared sufferings don't necessarily mean shared convictions -- as its two central characters discover in the course of Richard Nelson's ``Principia Scriptoriae.'' First encountered in 1970, American Bill Howell (Anthony Heald) and Latin American Ernesto Pico (Joe Urla) are sharing a prison cell into which they have been thrown for distributing leaflets attacking a right-wing South American dictatorship.

As they await with varying degrees of fear and courage the brutal torture to which they are ultimately subjected, the two young writers exchange views on everything from family and literature to sex and politics. Bill is the gauche naif, the impetuous activist, the garrulous know-it-all, arrogantly convinced that his status as an American renders him untouchable. Ernesto's English fluency identifies him as the better educated and more mature of the two.

The second act returns to the same country 15 years later. Ernesto has become a functionary in the nation's left-wing dictatorship. Bill is serving as a kind of recorder for an international committee seeking the freedom of a right-wing poet. Mr. Nelson handles the unfolding clash of ideologies and right-left power plays with frequent irony and considerable dramatic force. However, captioning his scenes with phrases traceable to a writer's manual distracts rather than clarifies. And in its final return to the opening scene of torture, ``Principia Scriptoriae'' settles for sensationalism instead of sticking with the tough ideological and political issues it has undertaken to tackle.

In their admirable performances as Bill and Ernesto respectively, Messrs. Heald and Urla illustrate how youthful ardor and idealism can come to terms with expediency and Realpolitik. Committee infighting, posturing, and positioning are reflected in true-to-life fashion with requisite satirical touches by Shawn Elliott, George Morfogen, Steven Gilborn, and Mike Nussbaum. Artistic director Lynne Meadow staged the Manhattan Theatre Club production, with sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by William Ivey Long, and lighting by Jennifer Tipton. ``Principia Scriptoriae'' is scheduled to run through April 27 at the MTC at City Center Theater.

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