For much of its length, A Chorus Line features rapid shifts in perspective among characters who offer brief comments on their lives. Some are funny, some are moving, some are illuminating, but most are just entertaining enough to keep you hooked. It’s the Twitter of musicals.
The touring revival opened at the Orpheum on Tuesday night, succeeding The Phantom of the Opera in a one-two roundhouse punch of the least escapable Broadway chestnuts of the late 20th century. In one way, though, A Chorus Line is the anti-Phantom: whereas Phantom‘s appeal rests squarely on the shoulders of its remarkable sets, A Chorus Line is almost without a set. Except for a few flashy rotating mirrors, the entire musical is enacted on a bare stage by the eponymous ensemble.
|a chorus line, a musical playing through june 21 at the orpheum theatre, 910 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($26-$76) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.|
To be precise, what’s depicted is the audition for a chorus line. The performers onstage are vying to be cast in the dancing chorus of a musical directed by the imperious Zach (Kevin Neil McCready), who spends much of the show offstage, communicating with the performers via God-like voiceover. Early on, Zach asks the auditioners to open up and talk about their personal lives—specifically, the various paths they’ve followed to musical theater. Whether that’s a brilliant idea or a fatal mistake is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but it opens the door for the dancers to share their tales in sound bites and soliloquies. At the center of the show are a monologue by Paul (Bryan Knowlton) about his rocky experience in a tawdry drag show and a solo dance by Cassie (Robyn Hurder) set to a braying-horn score that recalls the theme from Dallas.
That prime-time-drama resonance is apt not only because the musical debuted in 1975 but because there’s a distinct soap-opera flavor to the characters’ stories. There’s the rehashing of a failed romance between Zach and Cassie (“Why did you leave me?” “Oh, so we are going to get into that”), Paul’s coming-out tale (“My father turned to the producer and said, ‘Take care of my son.’ That was the first time he ever called me that!”), a triumphant paean to plastic surgery (“Tits and ass won’t get you jobs…unless they’re yours”), and so forth. From my stint working for a ballet company I can confirm that the portrayal of working dancers’ lives as overstuffed with drama, dedication, anxiety, mordant humor, and alternating bouts of utter selflessness and utter self-absorption rings true—but there’s a reason they had to pay me to deal with all of that.
For better and for worse, despite its mass popularity A Chorus Line is at heart an insider’s show. The script’s verisimilitude is no coincidence: creator Michael Bennett based the musical on recorded sessions with actual Broadway dancers. It was audacious to rely on acting, singing, and dancing on a near-empty stage to carry an entire full-length production; thanks to tight choreography and a play-to-the-peanut-gallery script by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Bennett’s gamble has paid off handsomely. The audience Tuesday night at the Orpheum was clearly delighted, but for me, even disciplined direction by Bob Avian—who collaborated with Bennett on the original production—and committed performances by the cast did not lift the show above middle-of-the-road crowd-pleasing. Marvin Hamlisch’s music is fine but not exceptional, the choreography is good but not breathtaking, the humor is sometimes chuckle-worthy but never side-splitting, and the drama is more sophisticated—but not way more sophisticated—than what you get in High School Musical. I appreciate the inventiveness and ambition of intercutting and interspersing characters’ stories, but after a while my eyes glazed and I began to feel the stupefying effect of channel-surfing.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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