Review: Ordway’s ‘A Chorus Line’ Serves Up Nostalgia With Pizzazz

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune 2/19/16

Ordway Center’s revival of “A Chorus Line,” which had its splashy, energetic opening Thursday night in St. Paul, has pizzazz, charm and a whole lot of heart. But the Broadway classic is far from the singular sensation it once was.

Chalk it up to time.

When it premiered in 1975, the one-act musical conceived by director/choreographer Michael Bennett — set at a Broadway audition and orbiting the lives of dancers who are a pillar of show business but rarely get the spotlight — was a runaway hit that set box-office records.

Forty years on, though, “Chorus Line” feels like a nostalgia trip. That may have to do with the vision of the creative team for this revival. It is directed and choreographed by James Rocco and Kerry Casserly, a member of the Broadway company with a decades-long association with the show. They have hewed closely to Bennett’s vision, recreating his choreography and crafting beautiful stage pictures even as they help us see the hungry, vulnerable personalities of the dancers seeking to live out their stage dreams.

Casserly and Rocco have introduced a few hip-hop moves into the evening — modest updates that serve to highlight that the show has become something of a period piece.

It may be unreasonable to wish for a re-imagining of this once path-breaking musical, whose storytelling style has become a staple of reality TV. In the age of “So You Think You Can Dance,” “American Idol” and other TV shows that focus on the emotions and personal stories of performers, “A Chorus Line” almost seems quaint.

Still, the two-hour, no-intermission Ordway production has assembled a capable, good-looking cast of newbies and veterans to tell the story, which builds up inexorable energy like a locomotive.

Dancer-actor Tom Berklund, who performed in the Broadway cast of “Chorus Line,” stars as Zach here, the director/choreographer who is leading the casting call with assistant Larry (Tony Vierling). Berklund has a commanding aura, but he is not mean or sadistic. He draws out the dancers’ stories with the right mix of exhortation and empathy.

Zach was once involved with Cassie, a one-time star who can’t get work and has swallowed her pride to audition for a chorus role. Playing a character who has modest talent but looks the part of a star, Molly Tynes expertly negotiates Cassie’s limitations well — at first it’s hard to tell if she really can’t dance or if she’s good at faking a lack of talent. But Tynes gives us an answer in the famous solo dance section called “The Music and The Mirror,” when multiple reflections amplify her moves.

This “Chorus Line” has a huge cast of some two dozen performers. The stand-outs include Broadway performer Pilar Millhollen (“Chicago,” “Doctor Zhivago”) as sassy and flirtatious Shiela. She has charisma and style and a great sense of humor. Herb Johnson III provides the hip-hop moves, giving us a Richie hungry for a chance to shine. As Paul, Omar Garibay gives a vulnerable performance that draws us into his character’s hurts and longings.

And of course everybody dances with winning style and attitude to the tunes by Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban, backed by a brassy orchestra conducted with verve by Raymond Berg. Together, they remind us how striking and original “Chorus Line” was in its time.

A Chorus Line runs through February 28.

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