Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Anaheim Hills, CA - If there was ever one musical that, on the surface, can translate well as an intimately-staged production in a black box theater space, then 'A CHORUS LINE'—the classic 1975 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning backstage musical—should certainly qualify as a strong contender. After all, the whole thing takes place on a bare, black stage during an audition, where the deeply heartfelt, personal stories are the colorful main attraction.
This still dazzling, groundbreaking show featuring music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and a book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante—which places well-earned spotlights on the often ignored players in the background of a show: the hardworking members of the chorus ensemble—has been revived at Anaheim's Chance Theater, the lauded small regional theater company in Orange County that has definitively, in the very recent past, shown a knack for taking large musicals and making them smaller, very special ones.
For the most part, the same can certainly be said about their newest small-scaled local revival, which continues its extended run through August 7, 2016. Exceedingly admirable despite being a bit rough around the edges, Chance Theater's peppy production of 'A CHORUS LINE' reminds audiences old and new why the world of musical theater continues to lure certain dreamy, insanely talented people to this sometimes frustrating, often euphoric, and always competitive profession time and time again.
Understandably, the original work of the legendary Michael Bennett is still honorably referenced here, which is, perhaps, a tad unavoidable with any production of this popular musical. But the show's creative team—led by director Oanh Nguyen with excellent assists from lighting designer Martha Carter, scenic designer Fred Kinney, costume designer Bradley Lock, and choreographer Hazel Clarke—still manage to showcase some fresh approaches to the iconic material within its swiftly-paced, intermission-less running time, from placing rejected auditioners on both sides of the stage like ghost pit singers, to the discovery of the production's terrific house band hidden just behind the downstage back wall, led by musical director (and on-stage "rehearsal pianist") Ryan O'Connell, that adds a mass of orchestral sound during many of the show's more imaginative/flashback sequences.
And, yes, because this is considerably a much more "intimate" production of 'A CHORUS LINE,' the show's svengali-like director is seen a lot more (particularly depending on where you're seated), instead of merely just being an omniscient booming voice from the heavens. It's quite a nice additional contextual layer to the show.
Even more heartwarming is remembering that this spectacular showcase of diversity and openness is a product of Broadway's progressiveness in 1975 that still continues to this day.
For the uninitiated few, 'A CHORUS LINE' takes place entirely inside an open call audition for dancer-singers to join a brand new musical opening on Broadway (although, honestly, I actually thought perhaps this production, because of its rather youthful cast, will tweak the material a bit and say it's an open call for a regional production, but I digress).
The show's intimidating director, Zach (the very commanding Ben Green) along with his assistant choreographer Larry (the nimble Calvin Brady) are barking directives left and right, much to the anxiety of the diverse assemblage of dancers that have shown up. With their headshot/résumés and moxie in hand, the (mostly) young hopefuls try their best to bust out the choreography they basically learned just minutes before. After a few rousing group breakdowns and a lot of bruised egos, Zach enacts the first brutal wave of cuts—until he is left with just 17 potential candidates, from which he will eventually choose four men and four women to fill the available chorus/ensemble spots.
"You must all be the same!" Zach compels them, warning them not to stand out amongst the group.
Ironically, this demand for robotic sameness in their dancing is the complete opposite of how Zach decides to get to know each of them—revealing some very intriguing individuals among the bunch.
In, perhaps, a twist on the normal audition process, Zach, from high above his God-like perch on the very top of the theater (or, in Chance Theater's case, the last row) asks the remaining candidates to talk candidly and openly about their lives. For some, the request is an easy one to comply with, but for others, the anticipation for their turn in the line of fire becomes a frightful nightmare.
"Don't perform! Just talk!" Zach admonishes them, hoping they'd be more real instead of "acting" to impress.
"What should I say?" the candidates ask (well, sing to) themselves. "What should I tell him?"
Most of the auditioners go on to describe their respective childhoods—many of which led them to their current love affair with being on the stage. Some are hilarious and eye-opening, while other stories are tragic and heartbreaking. One candidate, Cassie (Tatiana Alvarez), a seasoned dancer that once had potential to be a breakout star, is even revealed to have had a prior romantic relationship with Zach. Zach, of course, is puzzled as to why a "special" dancer of Cassie's caliber is even here at an open call to be a mere ensemble member.
"I would be proud to be one of them!" Cassie passionately tells Zach. "We're all special!"
I suppose that's true, to a certain extent, Cassie. But, alas, since 'A CHORUS LINE' is not exactly a bells-and-whistles or a flying-witches kind of musical (thankfully), it is heavily reliant on the strength of its cast and their individual ability to enchant the audience with their respective characters' personal stories.
Therein lies the challenging risk of an "intimate" production of 'A CHORUS LINE'... every character is, well, very exposed—and so is the actor tasked to essay that role. Perhaps because many of the cast members in this production are just much, much younger than the very lived-in (and true-to-life) characters that they're portraying in the show, some of the stories, admittedly, did not have as much of an impact as they have had in previous productions I've seen, regional or otherwise. They certainly performed the roles fine overall, but some felt much more deeply connected with the material than others.
There are, as expected, several featured standouts worth noting in the cast, which include Camryn Zelinger as snarky "aging" dancer Sheila, who's clearly annoyed and threatened by her younger peers; Angeline Mirenda as spunky Puerto Rican Diana (I loved her take on two of the show's more notable songs "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love"); the biting Ben Heustess as stylish Bobby; riff-tastic Christopher Mosley as basketball-loving Richie; and Victoria Rafael as über-confident, über-curvy Val. Also, Ashley Arlene Nelson (Bebe) and Kristen Daniels (Maggie) along with Zelinger offer up a gorgeous vocal trio in "At The Ballet." Green makes a memorably effective turn as Zach and together with Alvarez display a palpable tension in their interactions.
But the production is truly at its best whenever the entire ensemble comes together, particularly as, well... "One" Singular Sensation. As a united front, moving in syncopated harmony while draped in sparkly gold lamé, these kids show that they're just excellent as a troupe. Whether as backup for a soloist or when leaping from one end of the stage to the other—the show becomes much, much better when they perform as a unit than just the sum of its varied parts. You can really feel the camaraderie and, perhaps, the safety in being part of a creative collective.
In this sense, Chance Theater's 'A CHORUS LINE' is indeed a crowd-pleaser—one coordinated high-kick at a time.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of 'A CHORUS LINE' by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of 'A CHORUS LINE' continues at the Cripe Stage through August 7, 2016. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.