Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
A Chorus Line
Rather than merely evaluating their terpsichorean skills, director Zach (Keith Pinto) wants to get to know his potential cast members as more than just dancers. So, after initially culling the group to 17 hopefuls (choreographer Nicole Helfer and her cast have done a marvelous job of presenting some of the dancers as far more talented and capable during the opening number, "I Hope I Get It"), Zach asks them to tell him a little something about themselves: their childhoods, what got them into dance, their dreams, and their fears. After some initial hesitation, one by one the dancers tell their stories. Mike (Tony Conaty) reveals that he got his start watching his sister in dance class and realizing "I Can Do That." Sheila (Alison Ewing) is a rather jaded veteran who expresses her disappointment at life in general with a saucy bitchiness that somehow manages to be endearing. Her dance life began when her mother (a ballerina who married at 22 because her father informed her he was "probably her very last chance" and left her career behind) starts her at the barre. She is joined by Bebe (Jillian A. Smith) and Maggie (Danielle Cheiken), who sing of escaping the pains of adolescence in "At the Ballet" where "everything is beautiful."
Tying all these stories together is the desire to belong. Not only as a member of the cast Zach is assembling, but to belong in general, to be less of an outcast–something most of them felt. Yet in order to be a part of Zach's cast, you must subsume your own desires to be part of his ensemble: always in unison, always in perfect step, never attempting to stand out in a way that would draw the audience's eye away from the star.
This last requirement is a bit of a challenge for Cassie (Nicole Helfer, doing double duty as cast member and choreographer), a veteran Broadway performer whose career never reached star level. Because her dancing is more precise, more polished, and more distinctive, Zach feels she wouldn't be a good fit, but Cassie is desperate for work and pleads with Zach in the song "The Music and the Mirror."
A Chorus Line is one of the longest-running musicals ever on Broadway, and it's been revived and performed in regional theaters and around the world over the nearly 50 years since its premiere. Under the sure-handed direction of Bill English, this is one of the best productions of the show I've seen. He captures the energy and excitement in Marvin Hamlisch's music (played with tremendous skill and verve by a seven-piece band led by Dave Dobrusky) and Edward Kleban's lyrics, and pulls wonderful performances from his cast as they inhabit the characters created by Michael Bennett and bookwriters James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante. English has made sure every member of the cast is distinct and individual, even as they compete to become part of an ensemble in which their individuality will have to take a back seat.
Although its success on Broadway has meant A Chorus Line has often played larger theaters, the relatively intimate setting of SF Playhouse is a perfect venue for this perfect musical. The cast are so skilled at creating individual, relatable characters that it's nothing less than pure pleasure to see them at close range: snarky, wounded Bobby (a priceless Nicholas Yenson); Melissa Wolfklain dishing out of her best advice for stardom (plastic surgery) in the song "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" (also known as "Tits and Ass"); and Chachi Delgado's explosive energy in "Gimme the Ball." But the entire cast has something to offer–both individually and as members of the titular chorus.
If you've never seen A Chorus Line, this production is a marvelous introduction to one of the best musicals ever created. If you've seen it before, take this opportunity to fall in love with it all over again, for SF Playhouse has created A Chorus Line you can't help but love. Its big finish (kudos to Bill English for his patience in revealing his theatrical fireworks for last) will almost surely bring you to your feet in riotous applause. You won't be alone.
A Chorus Line runs through September 9, 2023, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15-$100. For tickets and information, please visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call the box office at 415-677-9596.