Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Chorus Line

Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

The first time I saw A Chorus Line, back in the late 1970s in Boston, I didn't know much about chorus lines. Now, I'm more familiar with those unsung performers, the Broadway "gypsies" whose dancing contributes so much to the electricity of musical theatre.

This is a show that tells the stories of those dancers - their childhoods, their hopes and fears, their experiences - as they audition for a Broadway musical. With a song whose lyrics include "I really need this job. Please God, I need this job," it's also a show that resonates in these dire economic times.

So, I should have loved the touring production of A Chorus Line a lot more than I did. Don't get me wrong, I liked it. I just didn't love it. There were parts I thought were great - especially the ensemble numbers, "I Hope I Get It" and "One," where everyone's singing and dancing.

But when the dancers lined up to be interviewed by Zach, the gruff director-choreographer played by Sebastian La Cause, the results were mixed.

(And where is Zach? For most of the show, he's a disembodied voice. I wasn't sure whether he was sitting in a seat in the front of the theatre or reading his lines from offstage or whether they just use a tape recording.)

Zach doesn't just want to see them dance. He wants to hear them talk - about their careers, their childhoods, why they became dancers. Their answers, sometimes painful at other times funny, are based on taped interviews with veteran Broadway performers.

For me, A Chorus Line worked best when the stories were poignant. I especially liked Kevin Santos as the sweet and soft-spoken Paul, recounting his days as a drag queen. And Robyn Hurder was great as the toughened veteran Cassie, who's left her chorus days behind for bigger roles but is now so desperate for work she wants to return, even though she doesn't really belong there anymore.

I think they're the most fleshed-out stories and they just got to me more than some of the lighthearted ones, like Jessica Latshaw as the scatter-brained Kristine in "Sing," and Mindy Dougherty as the buxom Val in "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three." They seemed a little over the top.

And while some of dancers were supposed to be in their late 20s and early 30s, sometimes they seemed like nervous kids rather than experienced performers who'd been through this process before. I couldn't shake the feeling that too often, I was hearing people performing rather than truly baring their souls. Maybe that was the point.

Also, I think the show is supposed to run 2 hours without an intermission. The performance I saw was a little longer and parts of it dragged. I know this is musical theatre blasphemy but I even got a little bored during Cassie's extended dance sequence in "The Music and the Mirror."

But when the dancers form a chorus line, I felt a little of that thrill I feel when I watch a tightly choreographed Broadway musical number. You know what, it's exciting. And I'm always amazed at how well it comes together, how easy and effortless they make it look.

Now, I have a little bit of an insight into the men and women - boys and girls in Broadway lingo - who make up those chorus lines, and I appreciate what they do even more.

The original production of A Chorus Line, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, opened on Broadway in 1975, in the middle of a recession. The show became a huge hit, racked up a slew of awards and ran for 15 years. It's also a musical based on an original idea, a pretty novel concept these days.

Even though it's no longer a singular sensation and maybe it's getting a little flabby it's still an important, groundbreaking show. And hey, I'm not a kid anymore either. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. After all these years, I'm glad I was able to visit with it again.


Vance said...

Since I never saw the original, I can't say if this revival is better or not, because seems like it never lives up to the original but I'm not sure if people were just being nostalgic or not. But when I saw the original Broadway revival cast, I LOVED IT.

But I will admit, the Music and the Mirror Cassie segment has always bored me and is the one weak link for me. I know what it's trying to do but it's never quite worked. Even in the flawed movie, it was the WORST section of the film.

But I think the cast is so important in this and while I had a different touring cast, I didn't quite love some of them as much.

Still, that dance sequence in the long Montage Part 1-4 section is AMAZING.

Esther said...

Well, I don't remember anything about the first time I saw A Chorus Line. For all I know, the original cast could have done the tour!

It's possible I might have liked it better on Broadway. I know when I listened to the original cast recording a few months ago, after not listening to it for years, I was struck at the humor and poignancy of the dancers' stories.

But I don't know, what was funny on the cast recording seem to drag and be a little over the top on stage, like the whole Al and Kristine duet. (We get the point, he's a tough guy and she's a scatter-brain!) This was over 2 hours and the pacing may have been off.

And I don't know, some of the cast just seemed like nervous kids rather than experienced dancers in their 20s and 30s. Granted, this was an unorthodox audition, so maybe that was part of it.

But like I said, the more poignant stories, like Paul's and Cassie's, affected me more.