A Chorus Line
Let’s face it: just as the motion picture industry is stuck on sequels all but guaranteed to make money no matter how lame (or great, of course) they may be, the theatre world is equally revival-happy. When I first heard A Chorus Line was in the planning stages for a major return to Broadway in 2006, I gave the obligatory groan. With all the wonderful new writers and composers out there waiting for their talents to be recognized and their fresh new shows to be produced, it’s a shame old versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe have to so often be dragged out of mothballs to squeeze the last gasps of profits from way-too familiar and often horribly dated material.
Of course, there’s thankfully never been any dancing felines or corn as high as an elephant’s eye in A Chorus Line and nobody has a problem with Maria, but hey—still. In 1984, Michael Bennett’s inventive and multiple 1975 Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer awarded musical was honored with yet another special Tony as the longest running show in Broadway history and, since finally shuttering at New York’s Shubert in 1990 after 6,137 performances, the musical has been performed repeatedly with varying degrees of professionalism everywhere from summer stock in Dubuque to tented rice fields in Katmandu.
Keeping all this in mind and considering I haven’t gotten out of the house much since recuperating from a recent surgery, I ventured out of my bed for only the second time in two weeks to check out the LA opening of the 2006 Broadway re-mounting of Chorus Line now playing at the Ahmanson—admittedly attending with some reluctance. Happily, I was more than pleased I left my preconceptions and obviously faulty memories behind with my bedside meds, because this is one revival well worthy of its new life.
When one conjures an image of Chorus Line, of course, what comes to mind? Why, the premature death from AIDS of director/choreographer/creator Michael Bennett, surely, whose bursting fame and incredible promise was cut short so tragically in 1987. And then there’s the dancing—and isn’t dancing what this is all about? Well, maybe not either. I immediately found myself charmed anew and extremely surprised, despite how many friends I have who were in the original production, how much I’d forgotten about this show in the 33 years since its debut.
First of all, there’s that indelible, highly sophisticated Ellington-esque score from Marvin Hamlisch, still a true knockout all these years later and here made even more memorable thanks to exceptional musical direction from John O’Neill; splendid orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Bill Byers and Hershy Kay; and hauntingly beautiful vocal arrangements by Don Pippin. Then there’s the ineffaceable contributions made by three dearly-departed theatrical wordsmiths: the still sharply contemporary book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, as well as the wry and whimsical lyrics contributed by Edward Kleban.
Bob Avian, co-choreographer of the original production with Bennett, lovingly and respectfully directs this new-old Chorus Line and Baayork Lee, who created the role of Connie in 1975, has graciously restaged all those classic moves. There couldn’t possibly a more fitting homage to Bennett’s unique and groundbreaking gift to musical theatre history, this deference to the 1975 version further accomplished by the recreation of the original design elements, including Robin Wagner’s sets, Theoni V. Aldredge’s costuming, and Tharon Musser’s lighting adapted by Natasha Katz. Acme Sound Partners completes the journey to now by expertly bringing the sound design crashing into our digitally enhanced 21st century without any ominous electronic “pops” to jar the senses or even one faltering transistor mic.
Oh, yeah, then there’s the cast: As dancer-shopping choreographer Zach (beautifully played by Michael Gruber, another member of the original cast) says just prior to his final elimination, “I just want to say I think you’re all terrific”—and in this production his statement not only includes the 17 hopefuls gathered for Zach’s grindingly personal casting session, but also John Carroll as his assistant Larry and the 11 other amazing young dancers playing the first scene’s soon eliminated competitors, every one of them perfect in creating instantaneous characters, some inspired in interpreting the subtle mistakes that send these kids packing so early on.
Still, Chorus Line has its standout roles and no one in this world-class ensemble misses a beat. Nikki Snelson is heartbreaking as the aging star-on-the-decline Cassie, so ready to return to the chorus and get back to work; Emily Fletcher is exceptional as the coolly attitude-laden Sheila; Jay Armstrong Johnson is sweetly wide-eyed as the 20-year-old Broadway newbie Mark; a young Bernadette Peters-clone named Natalie Hall is hilarious as Merman-mouthed “tits ‘n ass” girl Val; and Jessica Latshaw and Colt Prattes are endearing as the ditsy tone-deaf Kristine and her sentence-finishing adoring new husband Al.
Above all other performances, however, two turns linger the longest. Gabrielle Ruiz stops the show with both of Diana’s well-worn numbers, “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love,” and Kevin Santos’ engaging monologue as Paul, the sad little gay kid trying so desperately to better himself from the drag chorus of the Jewel Box Revue, provides the truest emotional highlight of this production.
Maybe it was just that I was only 28 when I first saw Chorus Line unfold in 1975, but I never realized back then when dinosaurs still roamed what an emotional wallop the script and music packed; then again, I was also light years away from discouragement about what might happen in my own life and my less-than spectacular half-century career working in the theatre. Attending with my dear friend Annette Cardona, that legendary Broadway star dancer who played Cha-Cha deGregorio in the film version of Grease and was Bennett’s personal choice to play Sheila all those years ago—a job she had to turn down for health reasons—the two of us sat in the darkened Ahmanson this time ‘round sobbing like babies. For Annette, I think a lot of those tears were for her friend Michael Bennett and, for me, it was both for myself and my many gypsy friends, including one from this show’s original cast, who like Bennett are no longer with us because of that horrible plague which has so devastated the theatrical community since the late 70s.
No, thank Terpsichore there aren’t any “real good” clambakes or falling chandeliers in A Chorus Line, which is what makes it so quietly compelling once again. Instead, there are 17—no, 18—stories about what a bitch it is to chose a career in theatre, especially for dancers. What this remarkable musical chronicles about this phenomenon in the latter part of the last century is what will make this show survive longer than any of the others.
A Chorus Line plays through July 6 at the Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772.