Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of The Chinese Lady
A Chorus Line began in 1974 with a series of gatherings by Broadway dancers. At that time, the Golden Age of musicals had retreated to the rearview mirror and the future of the Broadway musical seemed in doubt. The dancers discussed what drew them to such grueling and insecure careers, how they broke into the business, and much more. Michael Bennett, who had worked with many of the dancers and already choreographed and/or directed Promises, Promises, Coco, Company, Follies and Seesaw, sat in and saw the dancers' stories as grist for a show. James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante spun the conversations into a musical book. Marvin Hamlisch, fresh from Oscars for The Sting and The Way We Were, wrote the music to lyrics by Edward Kleban, and A Chorus Line was born.
The show is set in 1975 at an audition for an upcoming Broadway musical. The lights come up suddenly on a stage jam-packed full of dancers going through a routine as the show's choreographer, Zach, calls out the moves and counts the steps. A rehearsal piano morphs into a full, blaring orchestra and the scene is ablaze with the collective dreams and desperate needs of the dancers, each of them invested in the words to the opening song, "I Hope I Get It." As Zach then reduces the throng to a group of finalists, we are party to the pain of loss expressed by those who must depart and the accelerating hopes of the seventeen who remain. But their elation is shaky, as Zach informs them he needs to further cut the group of seventeen down to eight: four boys and four girls.
Zach's plan is for them to each share their personal journey with the group, so he can get to know them and select dancers who will jell into a cohesive ensemble, working in unison as a frame for the leading lady. The rest of A Chorus Line, over two hours without intermission, consists of the aspirants' stories which meld into musical numbers, some as solo spots and others as ensemble pieces. The solo and numbers are, in the main, pointedly humorous: "I Can Do That," "Nothing," "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," plus "Sing," which is a husband-and-wife duet. The heartbreaking account from a shy dancer named Paul is, wisely, not musicalized.
Then there is Cassie. She has a romantic and professional history with Zach, who lifted her out of the chorus line and pushed her to seek individual glory as a star. She tried and failed. Now she is back, needing work and desperate to convince Zach that she will be satisfied–more than that, proud–to be back in the line. "The Music and the Mirror" and its extended dance solo is a high point.
Ensemble pieces include the wistful "At the Ballet", and the adrenaline-pumped "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello, Love." The latter covers the years from adolescence through the teens and to the brink of adulthood. It makes sense, as even the oldest of the dancers are still fairly young, that those years in which personal, professional, and sexual identities were forged still burn with significance. "Hello Twelve..." is an elaborate and pulsating montage of stories that almost all of the dancers contribute to, a work of genius on stage if ever there was one. As A Chorus Line leads to its conclusion, the ensemble sets aside dancing to strike a contemplative tone about the lives they have chosen, in "What I Did for Love." A person doesn't need to be a dancer for this song to strike home and maybe cause an eye to tear up.
The song "One" is more or less the organizing vehicle for A Chorus Line. At the start, the dancers are learning the combinations for the song's elaborate production number, then they rehearse the moves and learn the words. During this process, the number seems to be vivisected. We see it broken down into its components, like opening the hood of a beautifully molded Ferrari to look at its parts and see how it works. When, at the show's conclusion, we see it full force, with the dancers in gleaming costumes, we are astonished that it is so much more than the sum of those parts.
The other way that "One" grounds A Chorus Line is that, though its lyrics refer to "one singular sensation" who is "second best to none"–presumably the character played by the show's leading lady–what it reveals to us is the unified force created by the skill, effort and willingness of the dancers to become a singular sensation, joined gloriously in performance. "One" is a tribute to the gypsies who have always been crucial to the thrill of musical theater but speaks just as clearly to anyone who has willingly submerged ego and committed every ounce of their sweat to a greater good.
With a show of this stature that demands the highest caliber of performances and creative work, the question in my mind was whether Lyric Arts, which has been presenting work of increasingly high quality over the years, including a gloriously festive The SpongeBob Musical this past summer, has the chops to do justice to A Chorus Line. I am happy to report that they do. The production is sleekly and seamlessly staged by director Scott Ford, music director Wesley Frye leads a twelve-piece orchestra that gives the score the clarion sound of a Broadway show, and Lauri Kraft's choreography is terrific, putting the dancers through exciting ensemble and individual sequences, cognizant that, unlike the show's originators, this cast has not yet made their mark on the Great White Way.
The cast is wonderful. Though, in several cases, their dance moves are less polished than we would expect of a crew auditioning for a spot-on Broadway, each of them creates a distinctive character on stage. Particularly strong performances on view include Dorian Brooke, who conveys Sheila's terror at approaching the age of thirty, John Brownell as Richie, who sought refuge from life as a kindergarten teacher on the stage, and Paul R. Cushman as an enthusiastic newbie. Jaclyn McDonald persuasively delivers Cassie's case for returning to the line with a breathtaking turn of "The Mirror and the Music." Chris Sanchez's Paul reveals the pain of a life lived in the shadow of shame, and Gabriella Trentacoste, as Val, scores big on "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three." As Diana, Marley Ritchie conveys the spark of determination undeterred by naysaying fools. Sarah Christenson (Christine) and James Ehlenz (Al) are darling as lovey-dovey newlyweds who perform "Sing." Leighann Bibb Colin (Bebe) and Annika Isbell (Maggie) contribute beautiful voices, along with Dorian Brooke, to "At the Ballet."
Todd Edwards' set is deceptively simple, making the most of panels of mirrors that can be turned in different directions. The audition garb designed by Christy Branham for the individual performers are reminiscent of those from the original cast, which works just fine, but the costumes for their unifying final number have a distinct shine of their own. Shannon Elliot's lighting design is extremely effective at drawing us in to the dance sequences as well as setting the tone for the book scenes, while Paul Estby's sound design delivers the music and words with great clarity.
A Chorus Line was created in 1974 and 1975, and the program specifies that the show is set in 1975. That is almost fifty years ago, so that some of its cultural references may have little meaning for younger audiences (Troy Donahue? "Peyton Place"?). Certainly, there have been vast changes in the acceptance and normalization of divergent gender identities and sexual preferences, even if the need remains to continue progress in that direction. Given those considerations, is there a risk of it becoming dated? Perhaps at some future time, but not at this time. A Chorus Line remains fresh and relevant. The challenge faced by the theatre world to rebuild audiences since the pandemic puts a new spin on the passion needed to seek a life in this beautiful but volatile arena.
If you have seen A Chorus Line and love it, you should be wholly pleased to see this production, staged with a total commitment to its artistry and its message, and vibrant performances on stage and in the orchestra loft. If you never have seen A Chorus Line on stage–yes, there was a movie, but it simply doesn't pack the same punch–I urge you not to miss this opportunity to see a landmark musical that remains a singular sensation.
A Chorus Line runs through October 1, 2023, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. For information and tickets, please visit visit lyricarts.org or call 763-422-1838.
Book: James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; Music: Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics: Edward Kleban; Director: Scott Ford; Music Director: Wesley Frye; Choreographer: Lauri Kraft; Associate Music Director: Benjamin Emory Larson; Scenic Design: Todd Edwards; Costume Design: Christy Branham; Lighting Design: Shannon Elliot; Sound Design: Paul Estby; Props Design: Cory Skold; Stage Manager: Jenna Hyde; Assistant Stage Manager: Leita Strei.
Cast: Dorian Brooke (Sheila Bryant), John Brownell (Richie Walters), Kyler Chase (Zach), Sarah Christenson (Kristine Ulrich), Leighann Bibb-Colin (Bebe Benzenheimer), Paul R. Cushman (Mark Anthony), James Ehlenz (Al Deluca), Tyler Eliason (Tom), Caitlin Featherstone (Judy Turner), James Grace (Greg Gardner), Jonathan P. Haller (Roy), Carter Hoffer (Frank), Annika Isbell (Maggie Winslow), Morgan Kempton (Connie Wong), Max Kile (Bobby Mills), Kaitlin Klemencic (Lois), Tommy McCarthy(Don Kerr), Jaclyn McDonald (Cassie Ferguson), Nicholas Ohren (Mike Costa), Brandon Osero (Butch), Sarah Potvin (Tricia), Caleb Reich (Larry), Marley Ritchie (Diana Morales), Cris Sanchez (Paul San Marco), Maddie Schafer (Vicki), Gabriella Trentacoste (Val Clark).