A Chorus Line: Stepping In And Out Of Time

I heard “A Chorus Line” long before I ever saw it.

It was 1975.  The original cast LP (yes, sweet, sweet vinyl).  I was a teenager in a small Massachusetts town, the drama, desperation and triumph of the Broadway stage … light years away.  But every note and lyric that sprang out of my turntable speakers rang true.

It would be 1979 before I got to see the national tour that made a stop in Boston.  Even from the balcony of the old Music Hall, the show seared the senses with its landmark mix of showbiz myth and reality.

Now it’s 2008, and the musical that saved Broadway has returned to Boston’s lovingly restored Opera House.  We’ve all changed a lot … but, for mostly good, “A Chorus Line” has not.  It’s still ’75, that rehearsal piano is still banging away, and an eager bunch of dancers is stepping up to the line.  Can it be as good as the first time?  No.  Can it rekindle the magic that made the Broadway musical not only relevant, but vital again?  Most certainly yes.

This new production is familiar, but not flawless.  Each cast member has the difficult task of making a character with universal qualities feel fresh and original.  That’s asking a lot.  The stories the dancers tell in “A Chorus Line” are all taken from real life experiences … family meltdowns, teenage humiliations, grown up disappointments.  We know these folks so well, that it’s only natural to want to take a deeper and more nuanced look at them.  It’s the actors that take inspired and unexpected turns that stand out the most in the cast.

As Zach .. the man putting the dancers through their audition .. Michael Gruber gets to play grand inquisitor.  He’s friend and foe … all seeing, yet often blinded by ambition and vanity.  It’s not a subtle role, and Gruber is not a subtle actor.  Since he’s often off stage, Zach’s voice has to carry both bluster and hubris … but Gruber is too one note.  His big dramatic moment with old flame Cassie is a stretch to begin with it … here it becomes ham-handed as well.

Nikki Snelson, as Cassie, fares a little better.  She sells us on the sadder but wiser aspects of Cassie’s once promising, now struggling career.  She’s got one of the show’s most killer numbers, “The Music and the Mirror” which is all about throwing yourself into the joy and power of dancing.  Thing is, you can’t just sing the lines, you gotta dance ’em. That’s where Snelson trips up a bit.  She should rip through the number like her life depended on it … instead she glides through steps she’s a little too comfy with.

So does a less than dynamic Zach/Cassie pairing mean the show falls flat?  No chance.  There are some terrific turns that jack the show right back up when it could have slipped away.  Natalie Elise Hall is a spitfire as Val.  She’s the gal who’s given her career a lift thanks to a visit to the plastic surgeon.  Hall enhances “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” with a wonderful bit of burlesque.

Gabrielle Ruiz gives a tough, but tender turn as Diana.  She earns the tears that fall during “What I Did for Love.”  And Kevin Santos breaks your heart as Paul … but without having to sing a word.  His monologue about his coming of age as a man and a dancer is simply unforgettable.

I could keep going down the line, but the point is “A Chorus Line” never fails to deliver when it needs to.  Michael Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban and company created a show that would stand the test of time, and each generation of actors that follows has the opportunity to tap into the genius.  The passion they bring to the show sustains its greatness.

You have until October 5th to catch the Boston production.  To anyone who’s seen “A Chorus Line” before, take someone with you who hasn’t.  Share the legacy.

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