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Review - A Chorus Line & An Enemy of the People

Twenty-five years after passing on, Michael Bennett still gets entrance applause in A Chorus Line.

It comes less than a minute after the lights go up on a stage full of dancers, auditioning for a director/choreographer who barks out instructions from upstage. But as the music swells to an electrifying Marvin Hamlisch fanfare, he moves his way downstage center, in full view of the audience, and sharply attacks the routine with the hopefuls behind him copying his moves with varying degrees of accuracy.

And with that image, the audience goes berserk; or at least they did on opening night of Paper Mill's new production, where the guests included over 50 actors from the musical's two Broadway companies, ready to perform an emotional encore of "One" as the evening's grand finale.

There are other moments that draw enthused applause of recognition. Like when the company lines up with their black and white headshots in front of their faces. Or the first time they, in "those costumes," strike "that pose."

Certainly there are moments in the musicals first staged by Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion and other director/choreographers that have become fixtures of most remountings, but perhaps no other Broadway musical has had visuals so embedded into the material. A Chorus Line's book (James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante), music (Hamlisch) and lyrics (Edward Kleban) were all written to adhere to Bennett's original concept and it remains the only instance where a director with no writing credit was named as a co-author when the show was awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

So although Bennett is no longer with us, several of the dancers who worked with him have made careers out of recreating his staging of the original Broadway production; save for some tweaks, presumably necessary to adapt to a particular theatre or cast member's abilities. Mitzi Hamilton, whose story inspired the character of Val ("Dance: 10; Looks: 3") and who has played the role on both the West End and Broadway, now adds Paper Mill to the over 35 times she's mounted his moves.

And while some future genius may someday come up with a new way to present A Chorus Line, the show remains a museum piece in the best possible sense of the phrase; giving contemporary audiences a glimpse back at a time when - with a bare stage, mirrors and one costume change - intelligently written, musically exciting and passionately executed musical theatre surged with the magic that is the realistic capabilities of the human body.

Because of the choreographic demands of the show, first tier productions of A Chorus Line are generally cast with performers who may be known in the industry, but not to the general public. The company member generating the most interest this time around is Rachelle Rak; a standout performer in several Broadway choruses - occasionally nabbing featured moments - who rather publically was the second choice to play the tough-as-nails, wry-humored Sheila in the 2006 Broadway revival, though the documentary Every Little Step. Finally getting a crack at the role, roughly 45 minutes from Broadway, Rak fills it with the sardonic sexuality of a woman nursing her scars.

Playing director/choreographer Zack, Marvin Harvey sports a British accent; perhaps foreshadowing Broadway's British invasion of conceptual musicals and pop-operas. While outwardly cold, he reveals some nice emotional cracks when dealing with Cassie, the dancer (and ex-lover) he turned into an emerging star by giving her featured spots, who comes to audition for his chorus after finding she lacks the acting skills needed to take her to the next level. Jessica Lee Goldyn's Cassie maybe looks a little too young and sexy to pass for a woman who has gone through all the detailed bumps that have brought her back to a chorus audition, but she's nevertheless an exciting performer in her solo, "The Music and The Mirror."

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