With all their flaws, all their quirks, all their jazz, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were all about performance. As depicted by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in “Fosse/Verdon,” the indelible work this duo brought to the screen provides a fascinating heart to this series. One of the most impressive things about FX’s new limited series is how it pulses with the beat of the shows brought to life by its titular characters.
“Fosse/Verdon” occupies an interesting place in the TV sphere, because in some ways it feels like a show produced by Ryan Murphy. But Murphy had no involvement; the brain trust behind Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton” is in charge, with the full list of executive producers including Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Joel Fields, Rockwell, Williams, and George Stelzner. And the love of theater is very present here: In the first two episodes of the series, directed by Kail, the shows these two icons created together get the front-and-center placement they deserve.
As far as the performances go, Rockwell is solid but overpowered by Williams, who so embodies the role of Verdon that you can’t imagine how anyone allowed her light to be outshined by anyone else. The vibrancy Williams brings to the screen is important because Fosse’s name has resonated so much louder in history than hers, despite (the way the show depicts things, anyway) her playing a vital role in bringing films like “Sweet Charity,” “Cabaret,” and more to life. The detail put into these elements is amazing; each scene invoking what she brought to the table proves to be as exhilarating as the original, even as there’s an awareness of recreation.
The biggest issue facing this show is the need to be aware of the works referenced — even though each property currently has varying levels of viewing availability. The Oscar-winning “Cabaret” gets a lot of attention in the first two episodes, but so does the Broadway production of “Damn Yankees” — which is not as easy to seek out today as the Oscar-winning film. It’s tricky, imagining the development process behind the series, since some of the source material is fresher than lesser known works in the minds of contemporary audiences.
Regardless of cultural familiarity, “Fosse/Verdon” is most successful when tapping into the drama surrounding artistic collaboration, for better and for worse, as well as how marital difficulties amplify these issues.
The series also boasts an amazing supporting cast, including Margaret Qualley, Aya Cash, Susan Misner, Paul Reiser, Evan Handler, Nate Corddry, and Norbert Leo Butz — with an additional shoutout to Kelli Barrett for doing a Liza Minnelli that goes well beyond caricature or impersonation. Barrett bears the heaviest load in these early episodes, embodying Fosse’s most enduringly iconic on-screen character, and her performance is so flawless that you might not even believe she’s pretending.
“Fosse/Verdon” tip-taps its way through the timelines of these legendary artists’ lives, landing on a glossy look at their respective marital situations. There’s a lack of judgement about infidelity, but also a crude depiction of its repercussions. After watching two episodes, there’s real reason to be concerned that the drama could consume future episodes.
Ultimately, this is a show about the making of entertainment, and the producers do a brilliant job highlighting the individual struggles the process entails, as well as how the people who devote their lives to it are affected. The first episode of “Fosse/Verdon” is framed around the choreographer’s death, but his passion for life is what drives the drama otherwise. Verdon’s own attention to specifics, and Williams’ inspired performance, honors the best and worst of what moves artists to create.
“Fosse/Verdon” premieres April 9 on FX.