Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A Chorus Line
Also see Gil's recent review of The Gazebo
A Chorus Line takes place on a bare Broadway stage in 1975, as director and choreographer Zach is auditioning dancers for eight ensemble spots for his next show. Instead of just having the individuals dance the steps he's given them, Zach has them also talk about their lives, something they aren't used to doing in the usual audition process. Over the course of the real-time audition, the 20 individuals talk about their family lives, their childhood, and why they wanted to become a dancer. When one member of the group is injured, it also makes them realize their profession can be hard on their bodies and forces them to ponder what they would do if they couldn't dance anymore.
The book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante masterfully crafts parts of the deeply personal recorded interviews that the musical's original director and choreographer Michael Bennett conducted (with Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens) into a plot with a beautiful clarity that is identifiable for anyone who is passionate about their career. The score by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban builds wonderfully from the book's narrative to flesh out the characters in a revelatory manner, creating a wide range of individuals anyone can relate to.
The Phoenix Theatre cast are all adept dancers who skillfully present Bennett's choreography (re-created by Lauran Stanis, who also adds in some appropriate steps of her own). However, under Jeff Whiting's direction and Dr. Randi Rudolph's music direction, not all of the scenes and songs are effective. While the intimacy of Phoenix Theatre's mainstage provides a beautiful connection between the audience and the characters, some of the performances come across as flat, rushed and uninspired.
Rob Watson's Zach has a good combination of ego and determination. Zach's past comes back to haunt him when his former lover Cassie, who made it out of the chorus years ago but has been unable to find continued success, returns to audition for one of the ensemble spots in his show. Watson has played this part before and even though we barely see him, as Zach is often in the back of the theatre watching the auditions, the confrontational scene with Sarah Wiechman's Cassie is well done. Unfortunately, Wiechman is just OK. While her dialogue scenes are good, her solo dance never truly makes us see what it was that made her character get plucked out of the ensemble and into a featured role.
The heart and emotion of the show lies in two characters, Paul, a young gay man who finds it difficult to open up about his past, and Diane Morales, a headstrong woman who has two of A Chorus Line best songs. Daniel Powers' monologue soars as Paul speaks about coming to terms with being gay and his difficult family life, and Megan Elyse Fulmer does great work in Diana's solo, "Nothing," about the acting teacher who underestimated her abilities, as well as in leading the introspective "What I Did for Love."
Shani Barrett is perfect as Sheila, the dancer who is slightly older than most of the others auditioning and who speaks with biting sarcasm and honesty. Her delivery of "At the Ballet" with Morgan Faith Jackson (BeBe) and understudy Elyssa Blonder (who was on for Maggie at the performance I attended) is a highlight, with moving vocals from the trio. Alexandra Garcia is great as Val, the no-nonsense woman who sings "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" about her realization that a little bit of plastic surgery would improve her lot in life, and Ryan Ardelt gets to show off his athletic dancing abilities as Mike during "I Can Do That."
Lucas Coatney-Murrieta, Brandon Brown, Michael Charles, Albert Johnston, Katie Jurich, Justine Rappaport, Cameron Edris, Abbi Cavanaugh, and Zummy Mohammed round out the cast with each providing a moment or two of humor. Aidan Lutton's lithe and limber frame is impressive as Larry, Zach's assistant and dance captain.
As great as the cast's dancing is, and it is great, there are moments when lines are rushed so jokes don't land, or when it seems like they are simply going through the motions. Perhaps this is a downside for a show where several of the characters aren't as fully fleshed out as the rest so each actor has to do the best they can to attempt to form a character with precious stage time. Adding in the intermission also seems like a disservice, even though I know other productions have done the same. It stops the momentum of the piece and makes a line that comes toward the beginning of the second act, when Zach is asked if the kids can take a break, seem odd since they just had one. It also isn't true to the original production's concept where we are watching the audition in real time. Additionally, some of the vocals are just okay. Fortunately, the ten-piece band sounds great playing these iconic songs.
Yelena Babinskaya's lighting plays off the shifting emotions and introspective lyrics, and the set design by Douglas Clarke, while appropriately minimalistic, includes the signature mirrored back wall that works beautifully for several numbers. Adriana Diaz' costumes play off the well-known original designs and she brings gold touches to the ones used for the finale that are similar to the original Broadway designs while also making them distinctive.
The themes and messages on display in A Chorus Line touch upon family problems, the pain of growing up, body issues, the desire to fit in, and the happiness and fulfillment that a career you love can bring, which are all universal ones that anyone can relate to. While this production, unfortunately, isn't exceptional, hearing such classic showtunes as "What I Did for Love," "One," and "At the Ballet," and having a cast who are all talented dancers re-create Michael Bennett's famous choreography in an intimate setting makes up for most of the production's shortfalls and manages to send you dancing out of the theatre on a high.
A Chorus Line runs through May 14, 2023, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Director: Jeff Whiting
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.