Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2005
After closing their 2004-2005 season with a blockbuster musical directed and choreographed by Tralen Doler, and so it seemed a sensible thing to open the 2005-2006 season with the same. I predict that this one will be as big a hit as the last. Only while last season closed with the notoriously silly Anything Goes, this season opens with the semi-serious Pulitzer Prize winner A Chorus Line.
I am going to say all the usual fussy critical things because that is my job and because there are some weak spots in this production, but overall this is a great show. C-R Productions seems to really be hitting their stride with seasons filled with big, tuneful musicals. Why go to New York when you can see productions of this caliber for a tiny fraction of Broadway ticket prices right in your own backyard?
I have never considered A Chorus Line to be a particularly good musical. I realize that it won every award on earth, ran 15 years on Broadway, and is generally venerated. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t a good show, but as musicals go the score (music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by the late Ed Kleban) is weak. In fact Kleban is on record as having said that he considered What I Did for Love, the show’s break-out hit, to be a “dreadful song”. What sells A Chorus Line is really the dancing.
Therefore, the biggest question with any production of A Chorus Line is will the choreographer be up to the job. The original production made an enormous star of director/choreographer Michael Bennett (1943-1987). As the show so painfully illustrates, good dancers are a dime a dozen, so casting is less of a concern. I am happy to report that Doler has done an excellent job, creating dances that are fresh and exciting and which are also suitable to the smallish raked stage at Cohoes and show off the talents of this particular cast very nicely.
And it is a very fine cast. The show opens with a great mob of hopeful dancers on the stage. Many of those first eliminated area high school and college students, for whom just getting these few minutes of stage time in such an excellent production of a theatre classic must be a thrill. These kids, if they aren’t auditioning already, will certainly be the chorus line hopefuls of the very near future.
The dancers are narrowed down to 17, from which Zach (Tony Rivera), the director/choreographer of this unnamed Broadway show, will select four men and four women. The show’s book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (with rumored and uncredited “doctoring” by Neil “Doc” Simon), was adapted from a 1974 “share” session at which 22 Broadway “gypsies” met after rehearsals for other shows to talk about their personal and professional lives, and so Zach then proceeds to ask each aspirant to tell something about his or herself. When did they start dancing and why? Of course this would never happen at a real dance audition where names are barely exchanged. The purpose of chorus dancers is, after all, to blend into the scenery and become just one moving, perpetually smiling backdrop for the star players and the action of the show. No one cares where you grew up, whether you are gay or straight, and if your parents loved you, which is the kind of personal history we get from most of the 17.
Bennett called the style he developed for A Chorus Line “cinematic staging” because the book, music, lighting, and blocking/choreography all worked to shift focus from one area of the stage and one performer to another with the rapid cutting usually found in film. Doler and his lighting designer Karl Chmielewski have followed this pattern. There are times when most of the group “fades to black” to enable one or two performers to be in the spotlight, and other times when the light literally goes out on scene A and illuminates scene B.
A Chorus Line truly is an ensemble show, but some roles are meatier than others, although everyone gets at least a few moments of solo song, dance, or dialogue in which to shine. Notable for their characterizations and performances are Jennifer E. Davis as the feisty Sheila, Marco Antonio Santiago as the introverted Paul, Frankie James Grande as the energetic Mike, and William Daniels as the flamboyantly daft Bobby.
There is a lot of talk in A Chorus Line about what “star quality” is. Cassie (Michelle Tibbitts), is dancer who has had some success as a soloist and who has returned from a failed attempt at an acting career in Hollywood. She needs work and begs Zach, with whom it is revealed she once lived, for a chance to go back to the chorus. He gives her a hard time about it, claiming that she cannot “dance like everyone else” and blend anonymously back into the chorus anymore.
Tibbitts, unfortunately, lacks star quality, and her solo The Music and the Mirror drags dreadfully. At the start of the show, before the mob of dancers had identities, I tried to guess which one would be Cassie, and decided on Davis, who, while not the best dancer in the lot, was certainly the woman with that je ne sais quoi that made her stand out in the crowd. I was glad to read in her bio that she has been given the chance to play Cassie in the past.
(And if you want to see the original, Tony Award-winning Cassie, Donna McKechnie, she’ll be doing her one-woman show Gypsy in My Soul October 7-9 at Barrington Stage.)
But the dancer in this production who just makes you leap up and yell yippee is Thay Floyd as Richie, who was woefully underused but unforgettably brilliant when he was given the spotlight in the Gimme the Ball segment of the long musical montage that takes up the center section of the show. Handsome, lean, and effortlessly graceful, Floyd made one leap that took him high above the stage where he hung as if weightless for seconds longer than seemed humanly possible.
Darcy Wright as Diana and Jessica Costa as Val both appeared among Reno Sweeney’s floozy Angels in Anything Goes and their promotion to soloist in this production struck me as premature. Both were good, but not brilliant. Wright gets two big solos – Nothing and What I Did for Love – and Costa gets Dance Ten, Looks Three, an amusing number commonly known by a much crasser name that rhymes with “Grits and Sass”. While she is not flat by any means, Costa is not a woman greatly blessed in the chest, so to speak, and so a lot of make-up (and no doubt an alarming foundation garment) was used to create the illusion of more cleavage. Frankly, while the song might imply that Val has had Pamela Anderson-sized implants, I see nothing wrong with more modest enhancement, and would not have been adverse to Costa flaunting what nature gave her without all this pretence to greater size.
I will now deliver my customary brief lecture on appropriate underwear, an especially essential topic when almost everyone is wearing spandex. Gentlemen, and you know who you are, I have just two words for you: dance belt. I now return you to your regularly scheduled review, already in progress.
Doler has chosen to keep A Chorus Line in the period in which it was written, the mid-1970’s. This is important because there are bits of the script which are dated, notably the reference to the fact that there are no more “big” musicals on Broadway (Andrew Lloyd Weber was just getting warmed up in 1975) and the attitudes expressed towards male homosexuality. A Chorus Line was groundbreaking in its day for dealing openly with homosexuality. Bennett was gay, and he and many other men associated with the creation of A Chorus Line had died of AIDS before the show finished its Broadway run. No one had heard of AIDS in 1975, and being openly gay, even in the theatre world, was far more difficult than it is today. Paul’s long soliloquy, which culminates in his breaking down in tears because his parents accept him and love him in spite of his being gay and a drag performer, seems oddly quaint nowadays.
There is no costume designer listed. Jim Charles is the costume supervisor and Khryn Diotte is the wardrobe assistant, but my guess is that the rehearsal outfits the performers wear were culled from their own closets, and the matching bronze outfits worn in the finale were probably rented. Everyone looks fine in their rehearsal duds, but they are not all appropriate to the time period. According to an article by Marc Reisch in the February 15, 1999 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, DuPont invented Lycra spandex in 1959, but by the 1970’s it was only just beginning to find its way into dancewear and tights. I still have some Danskin garments that I wore in the 1970’s and the material was of a very different quality than what is available today. It doesn’t age well, so I am not implying that it would be possible to costume a show with true period pieces, but a better period look could have easily be obtained.
A Chorus Line is especially beloved by people in the performing arts, and this region is so rich in the arts that it will not be hard to fill the Music Hall night after night with crowds who are or have been or want to be affiliated with some branch of the performing arts in some capacity. It also speaks to the longings of every person alive to be someone and something, to follow their dream, to be recognized for their talents and given a chance to shine. As Cassie says of the dancers she’s auditioning with, “They’re all special. I’d be happy to be dancing in that line. Yes, I would . . . and I’ll take chorus.” Wouldn’t we all?
A Chorus Line, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through October 9 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with NO INTERMISSION! Be forewarned and take the necessary precautions! C-R Productions is recommending this show for “Mature Audiences only” and there is some “adult” language, but I would imagine that stage-struck teens (14 and up), who have heard all those words before anyway, will just love this show. Call the box office at 518-237-7999 for tickets and information.
I understand that A Chorus Line is due for a Broadway revival next September, although it won’t return to the Shubert where Monty Python’s Spamalot will probably be running for the next decade or so. The revival will be directed by Bob Avian, who was billed as “co-choreographer” in the original production, and Baayork Lee, who originated the role of Connie Wong, will assist in recreating Bennett’s original staging and choreography. Of the show’s few surviving creators, composer Marvin Hamlisch and designer Robin Wagner will be involved. None of the original cast, who were largely unknown when A Chorus Line opened, went on to major stardom. It remains to be seen if this next cast of relative unknowns will have better luck.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005