When the cast of the Jungle Theater’s current production, “Urinetown,” got rambunctious during rehearsals, assistant director Chrissy Fournier blew her whistle.
“Mr. Fosse always wore a whistle when he was working,” Fournier said of the legendary Broadway choreographer and director. “He was very soft-spoken, and the whistle was how he kept the noise level down.”
“Urinetown” director John Command laughed when he was asked about his longtime friend’s means of enforcing discipline.
“She told you about her old Bob Fosse whistle?” Command said. “We didn’t have to use it much this time, thank God. I can’t stand it and she knows it.”
Yes, in a long interview, Fournier told about the Fosse whistle, about her belief in strictly enforcing the script, the value of persistence and about a career in theater that reaches back to the late 1950s.
Now 71, Fournier seems to have lost none of the enthusiasm that kept her buoyant in national and international tours, on Broadway and as one of the leading choreographers in the Twin Cities for more than a decade. More recently, she has assisted Command on two musicals he has directed at the Jungle. She is the second set of eyes and ears on the production, peering even to the back rows of the chorus — the haunts she once inhabited.
“Bob Fosse and Jerry Robbins emphasized you weren’t only a dancer,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You had to know the subtext; you had to be an actor as well as a dancer.”
‘Do it while you’re young’
With money she had saved from working two seasons at the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat, Fournier ran off to New York in 1961. She got an off-Broadway show that she describes as horrible, but that provided $37.50 a week toward the rent of a shared apartment.
Fosse cut her from the first national tour of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” so she came back to Minneapolis for the winter, saving “every penny for my New York fund.”
By the following spring, she was working summer stock in upstate New York, with Andy Devine in “Anything Goes” and as Dainty June in “Gypsy” opposite Pat Carroll’s Mama Rose. She and Carroll remain friends. When Fournier auditioned for the second national tour of “How to Succeed,” Fosse chose her for the chorus line. Nine months and 22 cities later, she really wanted to settle in New York for a while. But when Robbins announced that a lengthy engagement of “West Side Story” would go to Japan, she couldn’t resist. The experience was magical, although Robbins made it slightly difficult.
“I was the kid he decided to pick on,” she said. “He’d always target someone and go after them. But I was not going to let him cow me. It toughened me up and made me realize you can’t take this personally.”
In 1965, word was circulating that Fosse was making a new show for his wife, Gwen Verdon. They had scored most prominently in “Damn Yankees,” and Verdon was a four-time Tony winner as well as Fosse’s dance muse.
“He did his best work from midnight to dawn,” Fournier said. “He would work out the dances and then wake up Gwen to show her what he’d created.”
The new work turned out to be “Sweet Charity,” and for 18 months, Fournier was dancing on Broadway in a hit musical that netted Fosse one of his nine Tony awards.
Fournier said she never saw Fosse’s dark side, displayed most prominently in the film “All That Jazz.” She remembers him fondly.
“One night I ran into Bob on 47th Street and he said, ‘Chrissy! I hear you got married,’ ” she said. “He put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me and said, ‘Is there anything you need?’ ”
When Verdon hugged her on closing night of “Charity,” she told Fournier to “go have a baby.” In fact, Fournier was two weeks pregnant. She and her then-husband, Mike Black, decided it was time to move back to Minneapolis.
Fournier and Command had met years earlier, but their bond really formed when they were part of the original company at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre in 1968. Fournier danced, choreographed and acted (playing Lola in “Damn Yankees”). She also spent seven years as choreographer at Chimera, then the largest community theater in the Twin Cities, where she played the lead in “Charity” in 1974, directed by her longtime friend and mentor Larry Whiteley.
Fournier also worked at the old Friars in Minneapolis, where she did “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” with Barry ZeVan, the KSTP-TV weatherman. They married in the early 1970s and when ZeVan was hired away to Washington, D.C., she went with him. She and ZeVan later divorced.
Fournier bounced around to Detroit and Chicago before moving back to the Twin Cities in 1986. When Command became artistic director at Bloomington Civic Theatre, she became his assistant for several shows. Working at the Jungle on “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2011 and in “Urinetown” has reunited her with managing director Margo Gisselman, one of the original dancers at Chanhassen. It also has allowed her to form new friendships.
“Everyone relies on her eye,” said Bradley Greenwald, who has played key roles in both musicals. “She has a very acute sense for everything on stage and when she gives corrections you can trust her because she’s had such a lengthy history and she’s always right.”
Fournier has been married to her third husband, Paul Fournier, for 15 years (“third time, I got it right,” she said). They live in New Brighton, where she still coaches dancers and actors. She also has taken to writing, with a memoir about her mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and two novels on chorus life.
“The characters come out of real events and my experience,” she said. She’s working on a third and has a fourth planned.
“She’s a great example of someone who has made performing her life,” Greenwald said. “It’s not just a category for her, it’s part of her life. That’s beautiful to see in someone.”