It’s not often that a nearly-fifty-year-old musical will hold up to a new staging in 2022. The passage of time, and the eyes of a fresh creative team, tend to reveal all the creaks and cracks in the foundation – showing all the flaws that were once covered over by novelty.
But sometimes, if you’re lucky, a creative team will find a couple of the right buttons to push to get people screaming with joy. Sometimes they can make a moment written so long ago, on the other side of the world, feel like it was made for these performers and this place – right here, right now.
That happens twice in this production of A Chorus Line: in the opening number, in which we meet the group of dancers who we will follow through the show as they learn steps for an audition number; and in the second act, when one of dancers, Cassie (Angelique Cassimatis), performs the heart-stopping ‘Music and the Mirror’ (earning a spontaneous standing ovation from much of the opening night audience).
These are timeless moments on their own, but they are re-invigorated and made dazzling again by choreographer and director Amy Campbell. Campbell has spent her career dancing, making dance, and working with artists, and this show – a love letter to the heartbreak, struggle, and joy of making art – speaks a language she knows well.
While many productions of A Chorus Line retain the high-energy 1970s choreography by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian, Campbell has re-choreographed the musical herself, and it is thrilling. Expansive, gestural, and boundless, her work is all the better because it must show its spine – we watch exactly how many of the steps work in isolation, broken down as the dancers learn routines. Then, when it all comes together – when it’s alive in the bodies of the cast – we see the bigger picture, and it is transcendent.
But the show is more than these two moments, and it doesn’t all add together to make up magic. Some of it is dated, particularly its language (it happens with a show from 1975), and then there’s the problem of the music (Damon Wade is the musical director, Andrew Worboys the musical supervisor).
Combining live piano with backing tracks, the score moves at a bright but brutal pace, especially for this cast of dancer-first performers, they’re often scrambling to keep pace. There’s barely any time to breathe, and in a show like this, which always features casts of mixed singing and acting ability (all are exceptional dancers), nuance and notes are the first to get lost. A few of the numbers fall apart.
The toughest emotional scenes, too, sit uneasily on the stage. Campbell’s direction is kinetically character-driven, with blocking and movement that beautifully delinates each performer’s motivations. But the book scenes, where bodies are largely at rest and we need real moments of acting connection, have a habit of falling flat.
Plus, the agony of choreographing and lighting for multiple venues (the show has been plotted for Darlinghurst Theatre Co’s Eternity Theatre, Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre, and now the Sydney Opera House) is fraught with limitations that are on display here. Peter Rubie’s lighting is both ambitious and slightly disconnected from the cast (with as many as 19 people onstage, it’s easy to lose focus, and the lights don’t always find the moments it needs to highlight); and the dancers feel crowded together, dodging each other’s breathtaking extensions or quick turns.
Still, even though this production of A Chorus Line is uneven, it has an unbeatable alchemy: with its stories about the lives of dancers drawn from the real-life stories of working performers, it understands and empathises with the sacrifices required to make great art – while celebrating individual artistry. And the artists involved with this staging are worth celebrating. Campbell’s cast is seemingly inexhaustible, technically impressive, and undeniably committed. There is a real, enduring spark. When it ignites, you’ll feel it in your chest.
A Chorus Line plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 11, 2022.