Talkin’ Broadway Reviews ‘A Chorus Line’

Arthur Dorman, Talkin' Broadway & Talkin' Broadway 2/24/16

A Chorus Line is back, in a highly polished Ordway Music Theater production. The show that coined the phrase “singular sensation” continues to dazzle as a masterwork of stagecraft. It is arguably the best showcase ever for an ensemble, while offering a platform for great individual performances.

1975 was a time when traditional values were under tough scrutiny, with Vietnam and Watergate eroding American’s belief in long-cherished institutions, including the bloated Broadway theater scene. A Chorus Line injected American musical theater with renewed vigor and relevance. A huge hit, it ran for 6,137 performances, setting a long-run record that surpassed the previous champ, Grease, by about 2,800 performances (roughly the entire run of Hello Dolly!). Grease was of course a huge hit just four seasons before A Chorus Line, but where Grease dealt with nostalgia for what was viewed as a simpler time, with lines of right and wrong clearly marked, A Chorus Line dealt with the present, with all its disappointments, ambiguities and possibilities. It portrayed real lives of real people. They happened to be Broadway dancers (lucky for us), but their struggles to pursue dreams at a time when opportunities seemed to be diminishing can apply to most anyone and continues to feel relevant today.

A Chorus Line also solidified the “concept musical” as a legitimate and gratifying variation of the form. The book is highly literate and involving, but it does not tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, its unifying force is a theme, casting light on what it is that propels people to pursue their dreams, and how dreams can be an escape from nightmares.

A Chorus Line takes place at a dance audition for a new Broadway show, during which the finalists are asked to tell how they came to be dancers, whether by choice, by default, or as a means of escape. Director and choreographer Michael Bennett famously created A Chorus Line by piecing together lengthy late-night conversations among Broadway dancers, many who had worked with or for Bennett. It is said that much of the dialogue in James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book comes word for word from those sessions. Some of the participants took parts in the original cast.

While we can no longer see these brilliant and brave originals on stage, the genius of the work is that their unique stories reveal universal themes: overbearing mothers, distant fathers, body image issues, closeted homosexuality, dispiriting teachers, pursing the wrong—or someone else’s—dream, fear of getting too old to do what you love most, and the constant anxiety over what comes next. Interspersed among the heavy themes are lighter touches, like Kristine, the dancer who could never really “Sing,” or Mike who, being dragged along to his big sister’s dance class, decided “I Can Do That.”

Tim Hausmann as Mike in A Chorus Line (Photo by Rich Ryan)Marvin Hamlisch composed just one great Broadway score, and this is it. The music is memorable, incorporates different styles of theater dance music, and is highly theatrical. Ed Kleban’s lyrics fit perfectly. In all but one case, they are the confessional voices of dancers telling their stories. The lone exception, of course is “One”, the finale to end all finales that puts before our eyes the miracle of these highly disparate, individual beings being molded—choosing to be molded—into a glorious whole, a “singular sensation.”

Some of the bits are a little dated. Thankfully, it has become easier to be openly gay, especially in the world of theater. Some of the cultural references may be obscure to younger audiences, who may not know who Robert Goulet is, let alone what a heartthrob he was, or who never read or watched “Peyton Place.” But the gist of it all comes through as strongly as ever.

The cast at the Ordway is rock solid, all strong dancers and able to create their individual characters. In the ensemble dance work—”I Hope I Get It,” “Hello Twelve,” and of course, “One”—they move together with an urgent force, and heart-stopping grace. Individually, there are several stand outs. The role of Cassie, as close to a lead as A Chorus Line offers, is played by Molly Tynes, who has the acting chops to make us believe in her desire to abandon dreams of stardom and return to the chorus; sings with yearning; and dances with the blend of discipline and sensuality called for by her showstopping solo, “The Music and the Mirror.” Pilar Millhollen is terrific as Sheila, whose claims of being “real glad” she’s almost 30 carry the scent of desperation. Maria Briggs brings candor, humor, and verve to the role of Val, who explains in “Dance 10, Looks 3,” how she made the leap from also-ran to steady employment.

Omar Garibay plays Paul with heartrending tenderness, as he describes a boyhood of being bullied and excluded while searching for what it means to be a man, to be gay. When Garibay delivers his poignant monologue, you can hear a pin drop in the Ordway. Tom Berklund is Zach, the choreographer who calls the shots and asks the questions. This is the fourth A Chorus Line I have seen on stage, including the original Broadway run; Berklund has more presence as a character, and not merely a voice, than I have seen before. The role of Diana feels like the heart of the production, the character whose resilience and hope are cast with humor (“Nothing”) and with a sense of inevitability in the stirring “What I Did for Love.” Katrina Asmar’s warm voice and effervescent persona fit the part to a T.

The setting is a bare stage, with floor to ceiling mirrors used to accentuate the dancers and the dances. Pamila Gray’s lighting effectively draws focus to the various performers and facets of their stories. Kerry Casserly (a veteran of the original Broadway production, as a replacement Sheila) and James A. Rocco co-choreographed and directed the show. The choreography follows closely the original mold, with a few updates—a break-dance move here, a hip-hop there—but for the most part adheres to the power with which dance is used to tell these individuals’ stories, as well as being a unifying force.

The show moves swiftly for two hours without intermission, always holding interest, until the time when Zach must choose among the dancers, the eight who will be in his show. That remains one of the most thrilling scenes written for musical theater, as it bring home the reality that, while everyone is deserving, there are winners and losers. The bittersweet tone is completely captured, for who among us has not been on both sides of that ledger? The big finale, the performance of “One” by the full cast, in full dress, sends us out the door knowing what all the ambition and dreaming is about.

A Chorus Line is a landmark musical. The Ordway’s production gives evidence as to its enduring power as entertainment, as food for thought, and as a demonstration of musical theater that matters.

A Chorus Line runs through February 28, 2016.

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