A Chorus Line is known as one of the most pared-down, starkly intimate “song-and-dance shows” in the Broadway canon. On a barren stage—devoid of any scenery or set but for a wall of floor to ceiling mirrors to evoke a dance studio—a nervous gaggle of young dancers lines up, shoulder to shoulder (here, along a brightly lit neon line set into the stage), to audition for the few choice spots in the chorus of an unnamed Broadway show.
Casting director Zach (a tensely-brooding, near-smoldering Matthew Risch) relentlessly puts the dancers through their paces again and again as he barks out cues, interjected with harsh criticisms aimed at particular dancers, in humiliating fashion. Amidst the furious flurry of movement, the audience can see the grim concentration on the dancer’s faces, only partially masked by their bright, forced, stage smiles, and palpably feel their fear. (“God, I hope I get it.”)
It’s perhaps one of the least romantic versions of ‘Broadway stardom’ one could imagine – leaving the audience to wonder: why would anyone put up with all of that—the hours of exhaustive, repetitive dancing, the constant criticism and public shaming—just to dance in the chorus?
Zach wonders the same and, after thinning the herd down to 8 female and 8 male dancers (still twice as many as he can cast), he begins to pry from each desperate-to-please auditionee, the sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing parts of their past that led them to become dancers.
Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line digs deeper into the psyches of the struggling young performers than any production I’ve ever seen, stripping the characters bare before the audience (not literally) in a manner so disarming, you forget you’re watching a musical. Staged in Signature’s self-described “intimate” MAX theater, Director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones blur the line between actors and audience. The dance “line” on which the actors gather is set back only the slightest distance from the lip of the stage, the dancers almost looming out over the audience. Zach sits hunched over a small desk, staged smack in the middle of the audience itself, causing the first few rows to crane their necks back and forth to be sure not to miss anything.
Such intimate surrounds allow the actors to connect to the audience in a raw, almost unsettling way. Jeff Gorti stuns as Paul – a painfully shy dancer who reveals the story of his childhood and early career as a drag performer in such tenderly awkward fashion that the audience is absolutely riveted. Kayla Pecchioni, as wide-eyed Maggie similarly entrances the audience. A true triple threat, Pecchioni delivers a heartbreakingly vulnerable performance and showcases a bright, clear soprano with an impressive range.
In more comic roles, Maria Rizzo as Sheila—an acid-tongued dancer nearing 30—and her best friend Bobby (Ben Gunderson)—a clownishly-energetic optimist who’s got his sights set on the silver screen—are devilishly funny.
But any production of A Chorus Line is ultimately about the dancing. Most productions hew closely to Michael Bennett’s original high-kicking, tap-happy choreography and for good reason—much of the dialogue of the show has the director (modeled on Bennett himself) calling out the steps to the dancers. Signature choreographer Denis Jones takes a huge risk with the classic – and it pays off. Jones reimagines all but the most iconic and unchangeable dance sequences, introducing elements of not only modern and jazz styles, but also a few recognizable mainstream dance moves and winks to other iconic Broadway show choreography like West Side Story.
Jones’ choreography is breathtakingly complicated, with rapid changeups in dance styles and far less repetition of sequences than the original. It is also an endurance challenge for the 16-member ensemble (those that survive the first cut) who spend all but a few moments of the 2-hour show (with no intermission) on stage. Add in the audiences’ close and personal view of the action and you might expect to witness your fair share of flubs and missteps, but the ensemble’s technical proficiency, right down to the height and timing of their high kicks, was astounding— “one singular sensation” to be sure.
Emily Tyra positively stuns as Cassie – a dancer whose past connections to Zach are slowly and painfully revealed. Tyra, who began her career as a dancer for the Boston Ballet, has also acted and danced in the Golden Globe-nominated television series, ‘Flesh and Bone,’ a fictional story of the American Ballet Company. Draped in a flowing red dress that defies any hope of blending in, Tyra’s classical training and strikingly lithe lines elevate her dance solo “The Music in the Mirror” to a new level.
Signature’s revamp feels so fresh and revitalized that the 70’s style costumes (Sarah Cubbage) come as a bit of a surprise, particularly where the storyline—and the obstacles faced by the dancers—ring just as true today. Perhaps the lure of terry sweatbands, bellbottom jeans and wide-belted, Jane-Fonda-esq, leotards was just too powerful to ignore, or more fun than any modern equivalent.
As for Chorus Line purists, rest assured you’ll get your dose of dazzle.
A Chorus Line. Originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with co-choreography by Bob Avian. Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Signature Theatre choreographer, Denis Jones. Music Director, Jon Kalbfleisch. Scenic Designer, Jason Sherwood. Costume Designer, Sarah Cubbage. Lighting Designer, Adam Honore. Sound Designer, Ryan Hickey. Featuring Caroline Attayek, Joshua Buscher, Michelle E. Carter, Zeke Edmonds, Adena Ershow, Samantha Marisol Gershman, Jeff Gorti, Ben Gunderson, Lawrence Hailes, Vincent Kempski, Julia Klavans, Elise Kowalick, Lina Lee, Bryan Charles Moore, Corinne Munsch, Zachary Norton, Kayla Pecchioni, Daniel Powers, Matthew Risch, Maria Rizzo, MK Sagastume, Trevor Michael Schmidt, Emily Tyra, Jillian Wessel and Phil Young. Approximate running time 2 hours, no intermission. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant