Monday, May 2, 2011

theatre review- A CHORUS LINE - National Tour NJPAC May 1

The non-equity tour of A Chorus Line came to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark for a week's worth of performances last week and we caught the final performance yesterday.

Gaspare Diblasi as Paul
If there is anyone reading this that doesn't know the history of the show or it's significance to the world of musical theatre, here is a brief recap:   In early 1974, a group of unemployed dancers held sessions where they discussed what their lives are like and how being a dancer has affected them.  These very intimate and autobiographical interviews were tape recorded and Director/Choreographer Michael Bennett, working with book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante crafted the contents of the recordings into the plot for A Chorus Line.  Several of the people involved in the original taped interviews were cast in the original production of the show and the resulting musical portrays an audition for the dancing chorus of a Broadway show.  The people auditioning are mainly veteran dancers in their 20's through early 30's.   The show ends with Zach, the director/ choreographer character in the show picking the eight dancers who will be in his show.

But before the eight are picked, Zach turns the audition into something out of the usual by having the dancers talk about their lives including such topics as what their childhoods were like, why they wanted to become dancers and what they would do if they couldn’t dance anymore.  The show has an honesty to it that shows the reality behind the people involved as well as their motivation for dancing and some of their deep inner thoughts.  What the dancers reveal about their lives has a universality to it and that is why I believe the show still resonates years later.  As in some way each of us has something in common with at least one, if not many of the dancers on the stage.  Whether it be a difficult childhood, teen angst, body issues or the simple joy of loving the profession you've chosen.  And it's also about the passion that one has for something, again a feeling everyone can relate to.

Rylyn Juliano as Cassie
And, of course, another reason for the success of this show is that there is a lot of pretty amazing choreography.

The fact that many of the actual people who were involved in the original interviews were basically playing themselves in the show and with their "characters" saying the words that they themselves said about their own lives in the taped conversations is pretty amazing.  I'm sure many of the thousands of dancers who have played the characters in this show in various productions over the years have also had similar connections to either the character they're playing or the other characters in the cast as well.

This was a musical like none other, no other musical had ever had a "workshop" like this one did, so I guess we have to thank it for the fact that workshops now exist to help mold a show and get it in shape.  And while there have been many musicals before that showed backstage life, this was the first to go deep inside the characters to truly understand how they became the people they are, what motivates them and what their deepest fears are.   One can look back to Company, which Bennett also choreographed, that also deals with a lot of the inner thoughts and feelings of it's characters as a potential starting point for what Bennett was able to create with A Chorus Line.  But, I think the fact that the characters in the show come across as autobiographical and the realism behind the fact that you had actors who had to audition for the production of this musical now playing characters who are also auditioning for the show within the show is what made this more realistic then any musical that came before it and made it into the phenomenon that it became.

The show won nine Tony Awards as well as the 1976 Pulitzer Price for Drama and ran for almost 15 years on Broadway for a total of 6,137 performances.   The score by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleeban includes several songs that became instant classics including "What I Did For Love," "One," and "At the Ballet."   In fact, "One" has to be the ultimate curtain call number.

The current tour of the show is a non-equity tour, which means the cast members aren't yet members of Actor's Equity.  So, most of them are on the young side, which for some of the cast works in their favor, but for some of them, works against them - as Chorus Line is a show about people who've lived and have learned life lessons along the way.  I also thought the first half of the show seemed really rushed as some of the lines, especially the comic ones, were lost in the quick delivery. It could also be an issue with the sound design for the show, as the NJPAC auditorium is about twice the size of a regular Broadway theatre, so maybe in a smaller venue it would have been better.  This production uses the original Bennett direction and choreography  recreated by Bob Avian and Baayork Lee, both of whom worked with Bennett on the original production, as well as recreated the direction on numerous other versions of the show, including the recent Broadway revival. 

Ryan Steer as Zach leads the cast in the finale.
 As far as the cast goes, they were all great dancers but some of them lacked a little in the singing and acting.    I liked Ryan Steer as Zach, the director/choreographer.  He was a little harsher and more overbearing than other Zach's I've seen before, but it worked.  He also looked and acted exactly like you would think a director would be like when he danced with the cast as well as in his one on one conversations with a few of them.  Gaspare Diblasi as Paul has the shows best dramatic moment when he talks about realizing he is gay, finding himself and when his father finally called him "my son."  It is a deeply moving emotional moment that can not always have the impact it should have in the hands of a less skilled actor, but Diblasi more than delivers.   The rest of the cast has his or her moment to shine and while I liked Rylyn Juliano as Cassie, her big solo dance number seemed to lack a little sizzle.  Fortunately her dramatic confrontation with Zach more then compensated for the less than stellar "Music and the Mirror" number.

Seeing the show again and really connecting with how universal the theme of the person inside makes me rethink the way I conduct job interviews.   Maybe I should ask different questions from now on to discover the person inside the job interviewee.  Of course I'd have to have them also perform some amazing choreography as well and I don't know if that can be accomplished in my office. 

For a great background into A Chorus Line I highly recommend the documentary film Every Little Step that chronicles the creation of the original production of the show.  It also includes audio recording clips from the original discussion session and also includes a lot of audition footage for the 2006 Broadway revival of the show. The musical was turned into a movie in 1985 with Michael Douglas as Zach and while the movie version is more on the ho-hum side, it is interesting viewing even if there are some bad moments in it.

Amazon link for the cd of A Chorus Line [Original Broadway Cast Recording]

Amazon link for the MP3 download of  the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line
Amazon link for the cd of A Chorus Line - The New Broadway Cast Recording (2006 Broadway Revival Cast)

Amazon link for the MP3 download of the revival Broadway cast of A Chorus Line [The New Cast Recording]

Amazon link for the dvd of the excellent documentary Every Little Step

Amazon link for the dvd of the movie version of A Chorus Line

Clips of the OBC recording -

Audio clips of the Broadway revival recording -

Rylyn Juliano and "Music and the Mirror" -

Montage from the current tour -

the "One" finale with the current tour cast -

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