Those beloved gypsies are on the line again, baring their souls and dancing their hearts out for a shot to be in a Broadway show.
Yep, Cassie, Val, Paul and the gang are back - and they're invigorating Broadway in the sure-footed revival of "A Chorus Line," which opened last night at the Schoenfeld Theatre (236 W. 45th St.).
The new production arrives 16 years after the musical created by Michael Bennett ended a nearly 15-year Broadway run. When the backstage musical drama debuted, it was a revolutionary event, winning nine Tonys, including ones for the score by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics) and the book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.
Director Bob Avian, co-choreographer of that charter version, isn't out to radically remake the show - and that feels right. He virtually clones the original, looking to designers Robin Wagner (sets) and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes) to redo their work on the first edition, and to Natasha Katz to adapt Tharon Musser's 1975 lighting scheme.
The musical doesn't pack the one-two wallop of innovation and discovery it once did. How could it? But for its 2 hours and 10 minutes, it is still addictively entertaining.
The choreography, restaged by Baayork Lee, the original Connie, thrills from the opening number, "I Hope I Get It," to the lyrical "At the Ballet" to the glittery gold finale, "One." The dancing shimmers with passion, precision and breathtaking beauty. There's nothing better. The score sounds fantastic, too.
The show's central metaphor - life is a never-ending audition - proves durable and universal. Though the character confessionals (fractured families, torched romances, sexuality) still stir emotions, they no longer shock - what with secrets aired everywhere today on national television.
The large ensemble cast is uneven, but there are standouts. As Cassie, the aging "star" who returns to the chorus, Charlotte d'Amboise, a seasoned stage pro, comes through in "The Music and the Mirror." Jason Tam, as Paul, mines a long-winded monologue about a troubled upbringing for deep emotions.
In their Broadway debuts, Jessica Lee Goldyn, as the cosmetically enhanced Val, puts a fresh, sassy spin on "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," while Mara Davi, as Maggie, has the loveliest pipes in the house.
As long as "A Chorus Line" is kicking on Broadway, audiences have somewhere exciting to go.
For five thrilling, fleeting minutes, it’s heaven on Broadway, one of those hallowed occasions in theater when anxious expectation is transformed in a heartbeat into sweet consummation.
What occurs shortly after 8 p.m. at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, where the otherwise pedestrian new revival of “A Chorus Line” opened last night, is a sort of time bending that Einstein would have trouble explaining. Light, music and a mass of bodies in motion combine to allow you to exist both in 1975, when this musical was first staged, and 2006. This is what “A Chorus Line” was when I saw it in 31 years ago, and yet it feels so fresh that you stop to catch your breath.
The ecstasy of this “Chorus Line” — which in its first incarnation ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1990 and won pretty much every award on offer — arrives and departs prematurely, as that introductory rush of timelessness congeals into a time warp.
Watching the show, directed by Bob Avian, is like drinking from a pitcher of draft beer: You never repeat the tang or sting of that first swig. But since that initial swallow is so ambrosial let us savor it. Because anyone who wants to know why “A Chorus Line” was such a big deal when it opened at the Public Theater, then called the New York Shakespeare Festival, in 1975 (where I saw it in previews as a college student) need only experience the first scene of this revival.
Just what is it that’s happening up there, when the lights come up? A lot of dancers in rehearsal clothes are trying out new steps for an audition for a show. So what? Isn’t this the stuff of corny old backstage movie musicals? But there’s a merciless intensity about this scene, both exciting and scary. These kids are as tight and vibrant as newly plucked violin strings. And though there are more than two dozen of them, in just a few minutes you’ve become aware of every one as an individual, with the potential to soar or snap.
Creating that awareness was the original goal of Michael Bennett, the great choreographer and director who shaped “A Chorus Line” from a series of taped interviews with seasoned dancers. Collaborating with his co-choreographer, Mr. Avian, the composer Marvin Hamlisch, the lyricist Edward Kleban and the librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Mr. Bennett sought to paint in kinetic strokes a group portrait in which each subject came, if only briefly, into detailed focus, like the inhabitants of densely peopled canvases by Velazquez or Rembrandt.
What gave Mr. Bennett’s exercise its special sentimental wallop was that his inspiration was people who generally registered onstage as a shiny, anonymous throng: human scenery with flexible limbs and rhythm. “A Chorus Line” shined a spotlight (literally and figuratively) on the components of this dancing machine, as the show’s director (and Mr. Bennett’s alter ego) interrogated the finalists, unearthing the kinds of confessions usually reserved for psychiatrists’ couches.
The paradox of this production is that, from that opening scene onward, the characters never register more fully as individuals than when they’re dancing in an ensemble. It’s when they step forward to tell their stories that they turn into types. The line, in this instance, is stronger than its parts.
As Zach (Michael Berresse), the show’s director and ersatz Freudian analyst, and Larry (Tyler Hanes), his assistant, lead their auditioners through increasingly elaborate routines, the fascination is in the tension of the dancers trying (and often failing) to become the dance.
Baayork Lee, who was Mr. Bennett’s dance captain on (and a cast member of) the original “Chorus Line,” seamlessly recreates his self-anatomizing choreography. It’s stream-of-consciousness dancing; we can hear the performers’ self-correcting, self-assuring thoughts as they go through their paces. These numbers still brim with vicarious anxiety and exhilaration, neatly captured by the melody-warping dissonance of Mr. Hamlisch’s score (using the original orchestration by Jonathan Tunick, Bill Byers and Hershy Kay with minor changes).
But if much of the dancing feels newly reborn, the rest of the show feels recycled. The producer, John Breglio, has assembled as much of the original creative team as possible, starting with Mr. Avian and Ms. Lee. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are almost exactly as I remember them from 30 years ago, as is Robin Wagner’s rehearsal-studio-of-the-mind set. (Natasha Katz has adapted Tharon Musser’s original lighting design.)
Since “A Chorus Line” left Broadway only 16 years ago, to have it return more or less exactly as it was makes it feel like a vintage car that has been taken out of the garage, polished up and sent on the road once again. Now isn’t one of the points of “A Chorus Line” that musicals are not machines?
It doesn’t feel fair to the cast members to have them stand in the same poses and the same clothes as their predecessors, on whom the roles were custom-fitted. The original performers of “A Chorus Line” were playing parts inspired by their own reminiscences or those of people they knew.
“All that background was fabulous for the show,” said Donna McKechnie (the original Cassie), in “On the Line,” an invaluable backstage account of the making of show. “That’s why the original cast could never be replaced. Not just because of us individuals but because sharing all of that background enriched our performances.”
That many of the dancers had little previous experience in acting turned out to be an asset. The dynamic of the director Zach’s manipulating their characters into self-revelation mirrored the often uncomfortable relationship of Mr. Bennett with his cast. There was a rawness in those performances that personalized the show’s sentimental clichés, which could sometimes seem as quaint as the backstage scenes in “42nd Street.”
With only a few exceptions the current cast members have yet to forge intimate connections with their characters. By and large they’re bright, personable and cute as the dickens, which would be fine for “Fame: The Musical,” the synthetic cousin of “A Chorus Line.” It’s hard to separate professional shtick from their private selves, which defeats the show’s purpose.
Consider, for example, the roles that won Tonys for their originators. As the sardonic Sheila (created by Kelly Bishop, who won for best supporting actress in a musical), Deidre Goodwin captures (and heightens) the memorable armor of insolence but fails to convey the essential woundedness beneath. Jason Tam is ingratiatingly boyish, younger-brotherish and strangely unsullied as Paul, who tells the agonized story of his humiliating stint in a drag show in a monologue that brought shattered audiences to tears when Sammy Williams delivered it (winning best supporting actor).
Charlotte d’Amboise would seem to be a natural for the central role of Cassie, the talented dancer (and former lover of Zach) who is trying to return to the chorus after failing as an actress. Like Ms. McKechnie, who won her Tony for best actress in the part, Ms. d’Amboise is a dancer of distinctive elegance who has never achieved first-tier musical stardom.
But whereas Ms. McKechnie exuded a heartbreaking eagerness to please, Ms. d’Amboise registers a sharp, tough cookie who is perfectly capable of looking after herself. She is excellent in the group scenes, when you can sense Cassie’s nervousness in struggling to fit in. But there’s little sense of desperation now in Cassie’s big solo, “The Music and the Mirror.”
Mr. Beresse seems so sinister and robotic in coaxing the dancers into psychological stripteases that he’s like Werner Erhard with a songbook. It’s a hard part to get right, but couldn’t it have at least the perfume of humanity? (It feels telling that Mr. Hamlisch’s score sounds freshest at its creepiest, in those sustained brassy vamps that suggest human beings morphing into automatons).
Ken Alan achieves a winning nervous narcissism as Bobby. But the one performer who unconditionally owns her role is Jessica Lee Goldyn, who as Val sings “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” an ode to the career-enhancing benefits of plastic surgery. Strutting her chassis with a breasts-forward walk, and speaking like someone who decided as a child that her role models would be Bond girls, Ms. Goldyn creates a deliciously credible study in self-invention.
Breast augmentation, of course, happens to be a subject that has only gained in topicality. But even the stale blame-the-parents group-therapy-style revelations could still work if we felt the characters’ pain. The show’s power anthem, “What I Did for Love” (led in serviceably solid voice by Natalie Cortez), sounds as pop-pretty as ever.
But for the song to stir, you need to believe that each of the people singing it is, as it were, on the line. You can still sense the urgency that once propelled “A Chorus Line” in some of the ensemble pieces. But in providing us with an archivally and anatomically correct reproduction of a landmark show, its creators neglected to restore its central nervous system and, most important, its throbbing heart.
For the gazillions who loved “A Chorus Line” on Broadway from 1975 until 1990, who adored it on the road and around the world, who laughed and cried and felt they had come of age with every confession that Michael Bennett culled from the lives of Broadway chorus dancers, this is the chance to hug one another all over again.
But those of us who admired the show more for its brains than its manipulative soaper heart: Prepare to be accused again of kicking puppies.
Is 16 years too soon to justify a full-blown nostalgia-fest for the Pulitzer Prize-winning phenomenon? As someone else, please. Bob Avian, protégé of Bennett and co-choreographer of the original has put together a tracing-paper revival that plays as if the long-running show had never stopped running.
This is good and not so good. We’re delighted that no one decided to update references to Troy Donahue and Ed Sullivan to improve comprehension by desirable young demographics. On the other hand, the treatment of every step-kick as holy scripture bring the faint whiff of mothballs to memory lane.
To Avian’s credit, he did not try to replicate the look of every member of the original gang of two-dozen gypsies auditioning for just eight jobs in the chorus of a new Broadway show. But to our surprise, neither did he always match them in quality.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of “A Chorus Line” to the commercial theater of the 1970s. Rock music had run off with the brightest songwriters and audiences. Except for Bob Fosse’s dazzling “Chicago,” which opened the same year, empty playhouses were filled with desperation. This smash, which began life downtown at the Public Theater, did not merely shoot big bucks into the theater economy, the euphoria actually galvanized creativity.
Coinciding with a dance boom, the triumph also proved also proved the modern appeal of the dance-driven concept musical. In two nonstop hours, songs and dances grew dramatically from the story. Designer Robin Wagner’s sets of revolving panels and rear-view mirrors, a cliché today, were a revelation at the time. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes created their own rehearsal-chic style. No longer modern, those fabrics cling in unflattering places.
Bennett, who died at 44 of AIDS in 1987, was a tough, subtle master at moving bodies, but shameless at playing on easy emotions. “A Chorus Line,” with its book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, brilliantly puts together the backstage drama and the “I-really-need-this-job” seductions of our talent show of a culture. Marvin Hamlisch’s music is middle-of-the-road but always useful. Edward Kleban’s wildly smart lyrics may be the most underrated explanation for the show’s success.
But the banality of the plot’s psychodramas, especially in the two big scenes, have always left us wanting to rub Bennett’s fingerprints off our sleeves. The gay confessional and abrupt punishment of Paul (played with deep sweetness by Jason Tam) suggests that mawkish works if you can dance it. The confrontation between director Zach (the appealing Michael Berresse) and his ex-lover, Cassie, would be laughed off a stage if this were a play instead of a dancing musical. (“Why did you leave me?” “You already left me!”) But we get to watch the marvelous Charlotte d’Amboise and those beautiful little bones in her back go from floppy rag doll to jazz queen, then pull herself through a hole in her gut in “The Music and the Mirror.” Won’t someone please create a new musical for her?
Deidre Goodwin brings a fresh and flirty black-diva attitude to Sheila, the sophisticate who doesn’t want to be called a “girl” but opens up to share “Everything was Beautiful at the Ballet.” Natalie Cortez amuses with “Nothing,” the anthem against arty drama teachers. Most others are fine; a few are bland even miscast.
It was recently reported that the original players, many of whose autobiographical stories became part of the show, are not getting a cent for this revival. In a bonanza that purports to care so much about the poor, true-hearted dancers, the news adds an unpleasant poignancy to “What I Did for Love.”
When news emerged that "A Chorus Line" was returning to Broadway in a revival virtually identical to its 1975 debut production, the surrounding debate ranged from skepticism to cautious approval. Was it misguided to resurrect the iconic musical as a museum piece, or wise to acknowledge that Michael Bennett's superlative original staging couldn't be bettered? Was it too soon? Too dated? Those concerns are valid, but also immaterial. The thrill of discovery can never be repeated, and the legendary synergy of that first cast, many of whom were part of the development process, is lost forever. But this lovingly mounted replica gives ample evidence of what makes the show such a landmark.
For musical theater fans, "A Chorus Line" remains a transcendent experience, exposing the sweat beneath the spectacle, the human cogs that bring the machinery to life. Applying '70s-style group therapy principles in a then-revolutionary context, the show spins a line of dancers auditioning for a Broadway chorus into a universal metaphor for anyone struggling for recognition in a competitive world. Its stinging irony is that even as their individual hopes, dreams and vulnerabilities are explored, the dancers are being groomed to join an assembly line.
After 15 years on Broadway and countless regional, touring and international productions over the past three decades, "A Chorus Line" has fostered lots of warm memories in lots of folks, and the show provides emotional jolts of recognition that go beyond mere nostalgia. At certain key points -- when the cast turns away from the upstage mirror to face the audience for the first time in the opening dance combination; the high notes in "At the Ballet"; the ensemble coming in on the chorus of "What I Did for Love" -- a visceral charge can be felt coursing through the audience.
What's missing here is ownership. Reproducing Bennett's staging to the letter, original co-choreographer Bob Avian has assembled an appealing cast of accomplished singer-dancer-actors. But while everybody works hard, no one quite dazzles. That seems dictated not by any lack of talent but by the fundamental limitations of the production's approach. Fitting into the established contours of existing performances rarely generates the same sparks as creating them from scratch. The actors onstage feel like topnotch replacements rather than originators. It's the sense of duplication -- albeit lovingly executed -- that keeps the revival from soaring.
That the show is satisfying despite those constraints testifies to the strength and honesty of the material. Much has changed in the 31 years since its premiere, notably the prevalence of this type of confession in popular entertainment.
Back in 1975, characters airing their personal pain, their sexual awakenings, adolescent traumas and murky family histories, their fears and frustrations, was a relatively fresh concept. A slew of talkshows including "Oprah" and reality television have since cemented emotional self-exposure in public forums as a pop-culture staple. Everyone is now dying to spill his innermost secrets, so the persistence with which director Zach (Michael Berresse) has to coax his aspiring chorus members to reveal themselves seems very much of another time.
Given that shift, it makes sense to retain the original 1975 setting. Any attempt to update the material likely would ring false (like the heinous 1985 Richard Attenborough screen version, which halfheartedly nudged the action into the '80s -- though that was the least of its blunders).
Meanwhile, the explosion over the past decade of "American Idol" and its brethren has popularized the elimination-and-selection process in ways that may help "A Chorus Line" find a new audience.
Seeing Bennett's exhilarating dance sequences again, his choreography exactingly restaged by original cast member Baayork Lee, it's inevitable to note by comparison how poorly dance is integrated into most Broadway shows now. Inevitably in a musical conceived by a former gypsy and culled from the experience of those unsung ensemble members, movement informs almost every scene -- and it's only in a couple of draggy spoken scenes that the show's wrinkles work against it.
The deft, almost invisible structure of James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book poignantly mirrors the highs and lows of a chorus dancer's life -- discovery of the desire to dance; years of struggle; the tantalizing promise of a job; the transporting rush of performing; the cruel awareness of a looming expiration date; the wistful look back.
Set to the distinctly '70s sounds of Jonathan Tunick, Bill Byers and Hershy Kay's original orchestrations, Bennett's fluid compositions remain passionate and dynamic, with the cast almost reflexively falling back after each number into that line emblazoned on the memory of anyone who has seen the show.
Equally enduring are composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban's songs: "I Hope I Get It" provides an opening that pulses with urgency and optimism; "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" masterfully weaves multiple narratives into a collective rite of passage; "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" is as tart a comic number as you could wish for; and "One" masterfully encapsulates both the glitzy showstopper and the subtext of individuality harnessed into robotic synchronization.
Vocally, the production mostly matches the original. This is one area in which the cast is allowed to put its own imprint on the material rather than simply carbon-copying the cast recording. Among standouts, Chryssie Whitehead as tone-deaf Kristine gives a daffy, distinctive take on "Sing!," while Mara Davi, with her sweet, sure voice and unguarded stage persona, does a gorgeous job on "At the Ballet." Also registering strongly is Jason Tam as Paul, who gets the show's most emotional passage as he relives the pain of growing up gay. Casting of Deidre Goodwin as brittle Sheila makes the traditionally white character into a more familiar proud black mistress of the quick retort, but Goodwin looks terrific and does imperious sass with flair.
The closest the ensemble piece has to a starring role is Cassie, the humbled former featured dancer looking to slip back into the chorus and negotiating the baggage of her history with Zach (played with crisp authority by Berresse). In her extended dance solo during "The Music and the Mirror," Charlotte d'Amboise doesn't surpass the memory of Donna McKechnie, who created the role, but her Cassie has a lovely, understated melancholy quality -- possibly informed by d'Amboise's professional history as a perennial replacement.
The design elements hold up brilliantly -- Robin Wagner's spare, mirrored set, allowing the aud to see itself as well as the dancers; Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes, full of subtle character details; and Tharon Musser's precision lighting, adapted here by Natasha Katz.
Whatever the merits or shortcomings of reproduction vs. reinvention, it's unquestionably a plus that "A Chorus Line" is now accessible to new generations of theatergoers. Whether or not the show sticks around another 15 years, its unique place in musical theater history and heartfelt insights into the dedication and sacrifice of its below-the-title workers make it deserving of a permanent home on Broadway.