Close-Up on Robbins's Artistry

`JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY'' is a rarity, a successful musical that doesn't have a star. The long, lively compilation of numbers from 20 years of shows has no plot and only the thinnest of narration. What holds it together is the ensemble dancing and clowning by a cast of 60, directed and choreographed by the real star of the enterprise, who is, of course, Jerome Robbins. Mr. Robbins has kept one foot planted in show business and one in ballet since his first smash hit, ``Fancy Free,'' in 1944. The paint had scarcely dried on this ballet innovation when he redrafted it for Broadway as ``On the Town,'' a completely different treatment of the same theme, three sailors on a one-day pass in New York.

``Broadway'' is a wonderful anthology of Robbins's working process over the years. I kept seeing echoes of his ballets and being surprised at his ability to recycle ideas in fresh terms. Besides the more obvious connections - like the ethnic ties between ``Fiddler on the Roof'' (1964), ``Les Noces'' (1965), and ``Dybbuk Variations'' (1974) - his ``West Side Story'' (1957) had its first inklings in a short-lived modern-dress ballet with masks called ``The Guests'' in 1949.

The famous bathing-beauty scene from ``High Button Shoes'' (1947) escalates hilariously from Gay Nineties couples cavorting ``On a Sunday by the Sea'' to a Keystone Kops-and-robbers chase involving beachgoers and city folk, two sets of twins, a ghoulish clan of villains, and a gorilla. After this improbable crowd has charged in and out of a row of bathhouses, the pandemonium suddenly collects itself into a balletic pseudo-Gypsy dance. Robbins's first piano ballet, ``The Concert'' (1956), works itself up into exactly the same kind of headlong fantasy.

As in a ballet gala performance, each of the unrelated numbers in this show is electrifying or seductive in a different way. The audience's adoring response at one of the last previews reminded me how deeply attached we are as a culture to the songs and dances of our musicals. Even without any of the original story lines, these numbers make sense and have emotional impact. At the stabbing of Riff, the Mercutio character in ``West Side Story'' (superbly danced and sung by Scott Wise), there was a horrified gasp, as if the audience had forgotten Shakespearean destiny and become totally involved in the life of the character. I've seldom seen that happen in the course of a 40-minute ballet.

Robbins has an uncanny ability to condense character, occasion, and interaction in the frantic compass of a Broadway number. His eye for behaviorisms that tell a story is legendary - in fact, many of them have become staples of the commercial stage, like the splayed, balls-of-the-feet crouch of ``West Side Story's'' defensive teen-agers. Robbins can engineer masterly sight gags like the byplay with three clownish proteans who seem to have interchangeable body parts (``A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum''). He can make a corny trick like an actor flying on a wire (``Peter Pan'') truly magical again, through the exhilarated singing and soaring of Charlotte d'Amboise in the Mary Martin role.

Robbins has been fortunate in his musical and scripting partners, exacting in his production requirements. He has honored the original styles and stagings - no swoopy vocalizing or mumbled lyrics here, no misguided updatings of the choreography. The one big number that didn't engage me was ``The Small House of Uncle Thomas,'' from ``The King and I.'' Beautifully costumed and performed, it's a delicate, would-be charming drama in ``Siamese'' style, and the Eliza is Susan Kikuchi, daughter of Yuriko, who played the original and helped restage the scene. To me it looked precious next to the bawdy, frenetic brashness of the rest.

Everything else was exciting, even the ``premi`ere'' number, ``Mr. Monotony,'' which had been cut from both ``Miss Liberty'' (1949) and ``Call Me Madam'' (1950). After Irving Berlin's song, delivered with nice innuendo by Debbie Shapiro, the dance that followed (Luis Perez, Jane Lanier, and Robert La Fosse) looked like any old love triangle, except that the competing males mimed musical instruments as in Robbins's 1953 ballet ``Fanfare.''

The cast of ``Broadway'' is so large and the numbers so rich that I didn't have a strong sense for individual performers. The company, assembled from Broadway, modern dance, and every other kind of professional dancing, worked with supercharged energy and split-second timing. When they all turned upstage in the finale to look at the backdrop, a collage of theater marquees with Robbins's shows in winking lights, the audience was satisfied. Dazzled, thrilled, and refreshed all evening long, we went out humming.

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