Chorus Line brings renewed relevance to the stage
Review: A Chorus Line at the Marcus Center
Shows: June 23-28, 2009
Producer: John Breglio, Music: Marvin Hamlisch,
Lyrics: Edward Kleban, Book: James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Revival Director: Bob Avian
Runs: 125 minutes (no intermission)
“What would you do if you couldn’t dance?”
“You mean, besides shoot myself?”
This is one of two main ideas of renewed cultural relevance from the Broadway musical within a Broadway musical audition story as 17 characters vie to make it onto an eight-person chorus line. Each has a compulsory passion and talent that sweats out until everything is left on the stage – even if it’s only for a background role. Another main theme is that each character desperately needs a job in a time in which Broadway is “dying,” as one aspiring dancer puts it. The year the original story takes place? 1975.
The plot of A Chorus Line involves a producer named Zach who is auditioning bit players for a alluded 1930s Broadway musical revival (which is really what the showstopping end number “One” is supposed to come from). As characters are probed about their backgrounds by the off-stage voice, we are allowed to see the inner monologues of the dancers’ true fears and thoughts. During a moment in which the dancers are ‘rehearsing’ for the revival, they might falter or fall out of step as a character development plot point. But when the number is a piece of imagined fantasy by the dancers, everyone is in perfect form and their voices are in perfect harmony.
In a time in which theater is hurting due to the economy, and in a pop culture environment of reality show competition formats – think American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, where unknowns compete for a semblance of fame – the current national tour of A Chorus Line is more relevant than ever.
Well, except maybe for the dated sections of music hinting of funk and disco influences and some costuming straight from the 1970s. One of the troubles in this authentic production is that the staging is all too original. Uihlein Hall’s grand proscenium becomes part of the minimal scenery, along with a downstage mirror that occasionally flips around giving the dancers depth as they are lit from front and behind. It’s a trick to make the audience feel like something is more epic and it works: after Robyn Hurder’s (Cassie) flashy solo number in “The Music and the Mirror” where she dances for her livelihood while lamenting misfortune in Hollywood, the Milwaukee audience clapped hard for a good 30 seconds.
I took along a vet of the musical stage and dear friend of mine to the opening night of Chorus Line‘s week-long stint here. He was always the first to applaud and occasionally quietly sang along. Sometimes he moaned a little and nodded his head at a character’s statement in empathy.
He explained to me before the lights went down that this show is a kind of touchstone for performers, as it accurately reveals, emotionally and in narrative, what it’s like to be a performer. Originally workshopped by Director/Choreographer Michael Bennett with music by Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line isn’t just a show for performance artists; it’s a spotlight into their soul.
This makes it even more difficult for a reviewer to look beyond the mere entertainment of theater and spectacle and examining the production’s worth. I found out after the show – in the ridiculous time it took to get out of the (overpriced) Marcus Center parking structure – that even though Cassie’s number was epic by design, according to my stage vet friend she didn’t actually do harder than stretching her arms and legs around dramatically.
By the time a national tour reaches our fair city, it’s commonly near the end of a long run, and this production is no different. This tour has been on the road almost continually since May 2008, and some of the cast members originated their roles in the 2006 Broadway revival before that. So you expect to see a level of tired or pat reading.
Luckily, you get none of that with this show. Everything is ticked off in a fast metronome manner, giving little opportunity to absorb feelings for a character but never leaving a dull moment. The acting is proficient and it was surprising to see a different microphone set up than the new over-the-ear wireless mics. With the stage mics on the ground upstage, players have to belt out their lines the old-fashioned way. More surprising but wonderful was to spy a full and spot-on live orchestra hiding in a screened-off pit.
Everything felt genuine and technically proficient. However, this apparently doesn’t leave much room for the actors to own their roles, as often it felt like they were pigeon-holed to stay within the boundaries of what has worked for 34 years. A film has the benefit of closing in on a face to show subtle variations in emotion. A book can explain them in words. Modern television reality shows can manipulate them through clever editing. Stage has the hardest time of all; actors have to leave everything out there on a bare stage. Bryan Knowlton (Paul) does this during a protracted solo monologue near the show’s climax.
If you love Broadway hits, make sure you order a ticket in the middle and a bit back for optimal results, and you’ll have a great time. For a big theater town like Chicago, New York, or London – this show does pretty good. But for a starved audience like Milwaukee, which seems to have to outsource to national tours for lavish productions, this is a smashing good time.
For ticketing information and more, be sure to visit Footlights magazine or call Marcus Center Box Office at 414.273.7206
Also check out the documentary movie on the making of the current revival and the performers that struggle to make it in at the Downer Theater, now playing “Every Little Step”.