John P. McCarthy
- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
There’s nowhere to hide in “A Chorus Line.” That’s the whole point of the landmark musical director-choreographer Michael Bennett brought to Broadway in 1975. Shine a spotlight on the journeyman hoofers who do all the heavy lifting in musicals yet who seem destined to remain in the background, anonymous and unheralded.
It was, and is, a worthy aim. But the exposure troupers receive in this wildly popular show comes with risk. When singled out and asked to produce the song-and-dance goods, there’s always the chance they’ll be found wanting. They can’t coast on star power or a reputation earned in another medium. Their talent can’t be faked. Adding to the pressure in such a familiar and beloved vehicle—arguably the quintessential back-stage or behind-the-scenes musical—they’ll likely be judged in comparison to the original cast and those of subsequent revivals, not least by their peers.
Well, no one appearing in Westchester Broadway Theatre’s “A Chorus Line” should worry. The company is uniformly outstanding. And though not seamless the production is among the tightest and most enjoyable I’ve seen at WBT. (The contractual requirement that it be presented without an intermission is a major plus. Even when you add an hour for the meal service, the evening feels both swift and substantial.)
The emotional impact of the raw material, which grew out of informal conversations between real Broadway singers and dancers, is tremendous; and the deceptively simple concept in which it’s packaged is a marvel. The show begins in the middle of an audition, as a director (Zach) puts a group of would-be chorines through their paces. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of being thrust immediately and unceremoniously into the creative process—and into hearts and minds of the people doing the creating.
Without getting into the weeds regarding the genesis of “A Chorus Line,” Michael Bennett’s innovative staging and instinctual showmanship are mostly responsible for the illusion that you’re witnessing the birth of an actual show. Of course, you wouldn’t want to experience it without Marvin Hamlish’s snappy, oh-so-mid-seventies score and Edward Kleban’s clever lyrics.
Director and choreographer Mark Martino, who oversaw WBT’s colorfully effusive production of “Mamma Mia!” last year, is in his element here as well—on a spare, black stage with a mirror-lined rear wall. It’s a setting intended to showcase pure singing, dancing and acting. Bob Bray deserves equal praise for his handling of the music and orchestra.
Inevitably, it all boils down to the stories, capabilities, and perseverance of the singers and dancers—and to the courage and poise they exhibit when sharing them. The folks hired for this gig are eminently capable of making you laugh, cry, and hum along. On the one hand, because the show prizes the idea of a cohesive ensemble, a reviewer might be reluctant to laud any one individual. On the other, a major theme of “A Chorus Line” is to revel in the work of those who are typically overlooked. Fortunately, I couldn’t detect any weak links; nobody flubs their chance or fails to sparkle when they step out from the line. And there are always standouts, so why not name names?
David Elder is entirely convincing as the hard-driving director Zach. In matching beige shirt and bell-bottoms, he commands our respect, along with the dancers’, by projecting a sort of nurturing authoritarianism. He’s not afraid of excoriating auditioners, nor is he afraid of appearing vulnerable—as when he seeks an explanation for their break-up from ex-lover Cassie.
In the role of Cassie, a one-time featured performer seeking to jump-start her career by returning to the chorus, Erica Mansfield struts her stuff with a mix of grit and desperation. Lauren Sprague nails the withering sarcasm of statuesque cougar Sheila. Alexandra Mateo’s voice is perfect for the aching melodies of Diana’s two songs, which constitute the lyrical heart of the show. And Emma Degerstedt nicely captures the humor and poignancy in her number “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” a conflicted ode to the empowering effects of plastic surgery.
Maybe because it’s from a time when feminism was starting to gain traction in the public consciousness, “A Chorus Line” does favor the female characters. The “boys,” as they’re patronizingly called in this milieu, don’t get anywhere near the same amount of choice musical material as the “girls”. Paul’s long dramatic monologue, which revolves around his sexual identity and sense of belonging, compensates for that imbalance. Especially because Michael John Hughes renders it so movingly. One last shout-out to Brian Dillon, who matches Elder for plausibility in the ancillary role of Zach’s lieutenant, Larry. Dillon also serves as associate choreographer on WBT’s production, a fortuitous example of life imitating art… and vice versa.
The production does falter a bit during the finale however, thanks in part to two glaring design imperfections. In general, the climactic reprise of “One” doesn’t look as cleanly blocked or executed as the rest of the show. On press night, the cast seemed unsure of their footing (and even a tad fearful) doing the Rockettes-style conjoined whirls and kick-line (not easy to pull off, mind you) and the number failed to reach the sonic and emotional crescendo I expected.
Some of my disappointment at the meh conclusion stems from the atrocious costumes the company wear—the tackiest, most gaudy tailcoats and top hats imaginable. They’re supposed to be flashy and glitzy, but these peach-hued outfits look so cheap they distract from the spectacle. Same goes for the two flimsy panels that slide out from either side and come together in front of the mirrors; with gold and silver art deco chevrons that appear to be peeling off, they could be from a middle-school production.
These two missteps are so noticeable because “A Chorus Line” is a musical stripped of artifice, at least when it comes to design elements and stagecraft. It pares musical theater down to its essentials—talented people dancing, singing and baring their souls. For the next two months in Elmsford, a bunch of them will be putting it all on the line for the sake of entertainment and motivated by personal reasons. There’s no place for them to hide and no reason to. Do yourself a favor and go catch them.
“A Chorus Line” runs through April 1st at Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY.
Photo by John Vecchiolla