National Theatre’s A Chorus Line sizzles and sparks with dance and song and touches the heart with stories of dancers’ lives. This production boasts an extraordinary cast and production values that shatter all expectations and satisfy as much as did the Broadway revival production on which it’s based. A Chorus Line set the standard for integration of book and music (the original Broadway production winning 9 Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and this cast raises the barre for outstanding performance.
The story was a very new take on the classic backstage musical in its time. It emerged from a group discussion moderated by Michael Bennett where unemployed dancers voiced their dismay over the demise of the big Broadway musical and how this affected their dreams and desires for a career in dance. Bennett conceived of a musical which would showcase the lives of dancers and he pulled together the dream team of James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book writers), Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban (composer and lyricist), and Bob Avain (with whom he co-directed and co-choreographed).
The show’s linear narrative focuses on the successive eliminations as a score of actors vie for a few coveted chorus spots (4 boys; 4 girls) over the course of a day-long audition. (Fortunately, the competition has none of the cheesy excesses and senseless, time-killing commentary of today’s reality TV and audience-judged amateur hours.) The plot is essentially a gossamer thread that weaves together a series of autobiographical vignettes beautifully crafted to illuminate the dancers’ lives. These are very personal, yet archetypal, moments in the lives of dancers caught in documentary style, sometimes expressed in monologue and sometimes revealed in song: an intimate social psychological and ethnographic investigation of an endangered North American tribe of gypsies, Bennett called it.
Sebastian La Cause (Minnelli on Minnelli, Rocky Horror, Chicago and the Kennedy Center’s Carnival!) leads the cast as Zach (director/choreographer) and sets the standard against which other dancers (male and female) are measured. Many no doubt will lament that the easy-on-the-eyes, very hunky La Cause is a disembodied voice for most of the show — questioning, commenting and criticizing from the rear of the theatre. The character Zach is often described as stern bordering on sadistic. La Cause’s portrayal is well-balanced between firmness and fairness (more Fosse than Robbins – two likely inspirations for Bennett).
In addition to La Cause, everyone in this great cast merits acknowledgement, but three women pretty much make or break the song and dance portion of the evening: Diana (Gabrielle Ruiz), Cassie (Robyn Hurder) and Val (Mindy Dougherty).
Dougherty clearly enjoys playing Val, delivering a quirky, fun-filled performance that touts the economic pragmatism and social benefits of cosmetic surgery. A veritable Horatio Alger of silicon implants, she bubbles and sparkles through “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” a song more commonly remembered by the moniker “Tits and Ass.” If Dougherty doesn’t make you smile and laugh, check your toe tag for more information.
Hurder as Cassie, Zach’s ex and a former featured dancer struggling to find work and eager to return to the chorus to use her talent, must confound the technicians something awful. How does one light a performer who is gloriously lit from within? Her dance on “The Music and the Mirror” is gorgeous. Her vocal is breathy at times, but most singers are not required to sing verses between full body workouts. She is a vision of loveliness. The Red Shoes, which figures often as an archetype in the lives of female dancers, ain’t got nothing on Hurder.
Gabrielle Ruiz (Diana) is a performer to be reckoned with. She has two of the shows finest musical moments (“Nothing” and “What I Did for Love”) and has the audience in the palm of her hand for both. This show demonstrates her dramatic, comedic and musical chops. She’s clearly a triple threat and I imagine many a new show and musical revival will be built around her talent in the future.
A dozen more dancer/actors make up the incredible ensemble. Colt Prattes and Jessica Latshaw as newlyweds Al and Kristine are a cute, affectionate couple; Al is ever ready to rustle up a posse if that’s what it takes to help the chronically off-key Kristine find the note. Shannon Lewis has the challenging role of svelte and sexy Sheila, full of suggestive banter and self-deprecating humor, not afraid to let down her hair but regretfully aware that by the ripe old age of 30, with very few exceptions indeed, a dancer’s career is coming to a close. Her verbal sparring with Zach provides some of the best dramatic moments in the show as does the touching song, “At the Ballet,” she performs with Dena Digiacinto (Bebe) and Hollie Howard (Maggie).
Local audiences have enjoyed Baayork Lee’s work for quite a number of local productions, especially at Arena Stage. Lee, who originated the role of Connie, keeps the chorus line flame burning bright with her sizzling re-staging of the choreography. More than thirty years after its original production, the show is as fresh and bright as if it were conceived only yesterday. Just substitute homages to two of the great ladies of dance, Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon, with praise for Donna McKechnie and Priscilla Lopez and the chorus line comes full circle.
All photos used by Paul Kolnik
A Chorus Line
Conceived by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch . Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Bob Avian
Choreography by Baayok Lee
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
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