A Chorus Line
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
The first word of A Chorus Line—“Again!”—pulls you right into the action. As barked by Zach, the dogged director of an upcoming Broadway show, “Again!” is not an observation, but an order: He is commanding the two dozen dancers auditioning for him to repeat the jazz combination he has been teaching them. Soon, after a few more tries, they are ready to show off what they have learned, grabbing onto a thrillingly dynamic snatch of dance. And for an instant, the show explodes into high gear—only to retreat, teasingly, into the auditioners’ uncertainy once more.
“Again!” might as well be the motto of Encores!'s lovely revival of A Chorus Line at New York City Center. Notwithstanding its Pulitzer Prize, the show’s greatest strength has always been the singular, sensational vision of its creator and first director-choreographer, the late Michael Bennett, and the new production meticulously reproduces the look and feel of the original. As in the show's 2006 revival, Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the 1975 version, inherits directorial duties; original cast member and assistant choreographer Baayork Lee is in charge of the dance. The iconic looks created by costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge and set designer Robin Wagner are recreated with minimal tweaking. Through so reverent an account, A Chorus Line inevitably becomes a period piece, rather than the contemporary behind-the-scenes theatrical reportage that it represented 40 years ago.
Even so, the show remains an enormously powerful and affecting piece of work: one of Broadway’s all-time greats, with more kick than most other shows combined. After the pulse-pounding opening sequence—which famously ends with the auditioners’ nervous faces hidden behind their black-and-white headshots—the 17 remaining dancers, competing for eight slots in the ensemble of Zach’s show, must answer the director’s probing questions about their personal histories and their innermost hopes and fears. Since Zach (Tony Yazbeck) is seated at the back of the theater, the dancers are effectively revealing themselves directly to the audience. And over the course of two hours, as the dancers each get a few moments of spotlight time—whether through Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood’s dialogue, or Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s songs—their individuation shatters the illusion of sameness that musical theater ordinarily demands of its choruses.
The gifted ensemble cast is led by the terrific Robyn Hurder as star non-wanna-be Cassie; standouts include Anthony Wayne as the excitable Richie, Jay Armstrong Johnson as the jaded Bobby, Eddie Gutierrez as the senstive Paul and the fabulous Leigh Zimmerman as the acerbic Sheila. Paradoxically, however, even as A Chorus Line celebrates individuality, the discrete strengths and weakness of its performers are ultimately absorbed into the larger effect of the musical as a whole. In the show’s ironically stiff and glitzy finale, “One,” the identities of the dancers are subsumed into a golden uniformity. Earlier, we have watched the same dancers perform complex, elaborate, distinctive arrangements of movement; but at the end—when the dancers perform a simple kickline, a celebration of blank homogeneity—the audience erupts into spontaneous applause, the lights go down, and the dancers fade away. Moments like that, in which the sheer pleasure of performance is enriched by layers of understanding, make A Chorus Line worth revisiting—now, and again, and again, and again.
New York City Center (Off Broadway). Conceived and originally directed by Michael Bennett. Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Bob Avian. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 5mins. No intermission.
[Note: Portions of this review originally appeared in our review of the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.]