One of the highlights of New York's ongoing United Solo 2016 festival of one-person shows is Mimi Quillin's funny, dishy, and unexpectedly moving Call Fosse at the Minskoff, which just completed three sold-out performances. Full disclosure: Mimi shared some of these stories with me when I interviewed her for my forthcoming book, Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical. But seeing her act them out with affection and can-you-believe-this-happened-to-me flair, they're fresh and delightful.
Back in 1985, Mimi assisted Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon in reconstructing the original choreography for a major revival of Sweet Charity, getting up close and very personal with the pair. Rivers of ink have been spilled describing the dynamic between these two theatrical legends, long separated but never divorced. Mimi captures the complex, symbiotic nature of their bond in a single anecdote. When Fosse routinely changes his pants in the rehearsal room, Verdon, who hasn't lived with him in fifteen years, deadpans, "I've got to get him some new Jockeys." Mimi describes the cast giving Fosse and Verdon an opening night gift of two pieces of a crystal heart. Together they form one perfect heart. But instead of fitting them together, Fosse and Verdon each take their piece and walk away in different directions. Verdon and Fosse come to be theatrical fairy godparents to Quillin--loving and supportive, but also demanding and at times, capricious.
Verdon, the original Charity, has an encyclopedic memory of every number, even those she wasn't in, and Mimi's reenactments of Verdon's visual references for choreography in "Rich Man's Frug" are delicious. "Keep your head up," Verdon instructs when teaching the "Zonk," a step with arm stretching high and head turned toward it. "Otherwise it'll look like you're smelling your armpit."
Quillin (above between Allison Renee Manson and Lenora Nemetz) does a zesty Verdon, all quivery-voiced and filled with advice that sounds wacky, but turns out to make perfect sense. (When Mimi contemplates breast enhancement surgery, Verdon warns that it may eliminate her torso's "sense of humor.") In a poignant moment, Verdon, no longer the dancing star of years earlier, shores herself up by going to a theater district restaurant and is greeted like Dolly Levi returning to the Harmonia Gardens. Mimi's Fosse impression is steady and unruffled, with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his mouth, and she provides polished cameos of Cy Coleman, Chita Rivera, and Peter Gennaro.
Sweet Charity is the big opportunity of Mimi's young career, but there are frustrations and confusions too. As the newbie given additional duties as dance captain, she gets full-on diva attitude from some of the show's veteran Fosse dancers. Fosse is hard driving and relentless in his quest for perfection, but he's also unpredictable and easily flattered. He assigns one dancer a choice understudy role after she plays to his ego and, Mimi suspects, sleeps with him--with Mimi left to coach her. Mimi herself experiences the famous Fosse womanizing. Is he coming on to her when he asks her to dinner? Arriving at Fosse's apartment for a meeting, his doorman checks out her ass and she wonders how many other female asses he's checked out as they head upstairs. But Fosse also challenges her to think like an actor. In rehearsals for "Big Spender" he pushes her to dig deeper in her characterization. "Don't try to be real, just tell the truth. Believe in this little black box. And most importantly -- let them come to you," he urged them.
The revival's a hit, but Fosse's new show, Big Deal, is a dismal flop, and when Sweet Charity retools for a post-Broadway tour, tension is thick. On opening night in Washington, D.C., Fosse is felled by a heart attack near the theater. By this time, Fosse had already arranged a scholarship for Mimi to the Lee Strasberg Institute, having recognized in her qualities that would someday take her out of the chorus. Call Fosse at the Minskoff fully justifies his belief in her talent. Fluidly staged and effortlessly evoking multiple locations and time shifts, the show is both a tour de force solo performance and a polished jewel of theatrical memoir. Thirty years on, Mimi retains her dancer's buoyancy and quicksilver energy. She is marvelous company and Call Fosse at the Minskoff is essential musical theater history.