‘A Chorus Line,’ alive and kicking


By Scott Harrah

This trenchant and poignant revival of the cherished classic musical is just as innovative now as when “A Chorus Line” originally opened in 1975. At the time, director and choreographer Michael Bennett, who died in 1987 at age 44, injected badly needed creativity back into Broadway by mounting one of most original and groundbreaking musicals the American theater had ever seen. It won nine Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and ran for 6,137 performances until it finally closed in the spring of 1990. Over a decade later, its message about the hardships dancers face is still powerful and hardly dated.

“A Chorus Line” has no real set and an unorthodox yet brilliant narrative. Bennett ­— one of Broadway’s first director-choreographers to have a dominant influence on a show’s creation — wanted to honor the tough, competitive lives of dancers, the “gypsies” that went from one audition to the next, honed their skills in regional theaters, and waited tables while waiting for their proverbial “big break” on Broadway. With the proliferation of network and cable TV and the abundance of both Hollywood and independent films, there might be more opportunities for actors in 2006, but there are still young dancers arriving in New York daily, with dreams of dancing in a chorus line on the stage.

So it’s fitting, then, that this revival of “A Chorus Line” follows the original production word for eloquent word, step by glorious step. While many modern revivals of classic shows rely on gimmickry to attract new audiences, the only real difference in the new staging is that the cast is slightly smaller. The story still revolves around an audition in a theatrical Utopia, in which the choreographer/director cares little about what’s on everyone’s resume and instead wants to hear why each dancer decided to enter this cutthroat business. This unusual storyline reportedly evolved after Bennett had a workshop session with a group of dancers after rehearsals and let them chat informally about their lives. During the audition in the show, the director Zack (Michael Berresse) and his choreography assistant Larry (Tyler Hanes) inform a group of chorus hopefuls that they will be selecting four men and four women for an upcoming musical.

In the exhilarating opening number “I Hope I Get It,” a rehearsal piano is heard as the dancers move around the stage, then eventually move forward and hold up their headshots in front of their faces. Zach asks the dancers to talk about their lives, and a young hopeful, Mike (Jeffrey Schecter), launches into the song “I Can Do That,” reminiscing about being introduced to dance as a small boy when he would watch his sister’s dance class.

The song “And” delves into the dancers’ feelings about this odd audition. Three of the female dancers, Sheila (Deidre Goodwin), Bebe (Alisan Porter) and Maggie (Mara Davi) sing about their childhood love of ballet in “At the Ballet.”

One of the funniest songs is “Sing,” in which husband-and-wife team Kristine (Chryssie Whitehead) and Bronx-born Italian Al (Tony Yazbeck) attempt to show off their vocal talents. While Al has no problems, Kristine doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, and her “tone deaf” singing is amusing indeed.

In the montage sequence “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” dancers talk about their difficult teenage years. Paul (Jason Tam) tells the most touching story as he remembers growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality. Although the topic is tame by today’s standards, that wasn’t the case in 1975, and “A Chorus Line” was the first musical to address homosexuality in an open and accepting manner.

The story also covers the unfair reality of talented dancers who don’t have the right “look” and rarely get cast in shows. Voluptuous Val (played with aplomb and verve by Jessica Lee Goldyn) sings about getting her breasts and butt surgically altered in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” ­— better known to the show’s fans as the “Tits and Ass” song.

Zach, the director, tells his ex-girlfriend Cassie (Charlotte d’Amboise), a 17-year veteran of the dance world, that she’s simply too good to be cast in the chorus. She talks about a move to Los Angeles that resulted in little more than work in TV commercials, and how difficult it is for older women to find work in show business. She shows off her many talents in the long solo “The Music and the Mirror.” This vital scene is based on Michael Bennett’s real-life marriage to dancer Donna McKechnie (who won a Tony for the role in the original production). Some who saw the 1975 production say d’Amboise (who is definitely a Broadway veteran) does not portray Cassie’s desperation in this dance piece, but that is an unfair criticism. It’s hard for any actress or dancer to play an iconic role that defined someone else’s career 31 years ago, but d’Amboise makes a valiant effort and dances her tail off in the number.

When one of the dancers gets injured, Zach asks the others what they will do with their lives when they’re no longer physically able to dance. Diana (Natalie Cortez) belts out the show’s most famous song “What I Did For Love,” explaining what really drives people to pursue such an unstable career.

Before the show’s end, the hopefuls are asked to stand in line as Zach starts eliminating people and the harsh realities of rejection sink in. Watching some step forward while others stand in line (and wondering which dancers will get cast) has the same sort of suspense we see now in the elimination sequences on countless reality TV shows. But this is hardly an episode of “American Idol” or “Project Runway,” and it’s moments like this that make the show as relevant today as it was 31 years ago. It’s risky to mount a revival of such a watershed golden oldie as “A Chorus Line,” but thankfully director Bob Avian does not try to embellish or change the show to please 21st century theatrical palates. Although people that saw the 1975 show may say this revival lacks the panache of the original, younger audiences who have never seen “A Chorus Line” will definitely find it as fresh and inspiring as the generation before them.