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.”
(While the setting of A Chorus Line is usually described in programs as a Broadway audition, the Paper Mill program states the action takes place at the third and final callback, making seem unusual that it would take so long for the on-stage confrontation Zack and Cassie to occur.)
The book’s spoken highlight is a monologue by Paul, describing a time in his life where he performed in drag in a less-than-glamorous gay theatre. Generally played with shy sensitivity, J. Manuel Santos’ refreshing interpretation, while still emotionally vulnerable, has an unapologetic toughness to it. There is also fine work by Gabrielle Ruiz as a spunky Diana, who sings her memories of being embarrassed by an insensitive teacher in her first acting class, Kevin Curtis as the hyperactive Richie and Mark Myers as Mike, who delivers an athletically spirited and entertaining “I Can Do That.”
Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Company; Bottom: Kevin Curtis and Company.
As Bristol Palin’s success on Dancing With The Stars has taught us, in a democracy the majority may rule, but the majority may also be made up of easily swayed, short-sighted idiots.
Henrik Ibsen, though no judge of dancing, was certainly thinking along the same lines with his 1882 political drama An Enemy of the People.
The story is set in a small coastal Norwegian town whose public baths, built though taxes and private funding, has considerably bolstered the local economy through employment and the tourists who come for the health benefits. However, the medical supervisor has discovered the waters to be contaminated by waste from a nearby factory. His solution to solve the problem would be costly and require the baths to be shut down for an extended period, so the mayor, who is also his brother, ignores his findings and when the doctor pushes for action, he finds himself vilified by the masses who would be expected to pay for it all with a tax increase.
In America, the play is most known from the textured morality arguments of Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation, but this new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz has streamlined the story, modernized the language and peppered the script with a few sitcom zingers. It might have worked if the setting was shifted to contemporary times, but when framed by the period look of John Lee Beatty’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, the new text and director Doug Hughes’ fast and loud direction seem at war with the visuals.
Fortunately, Boyd Gaines carries the production on his versatile shoulders and makes it seem more of a worthwhile venture. From his initial entrance his Dr. Stockmann is far from selfless, naively enraptured in thoughts of being considered a local hero for his discovery of the problem and genius in finding a solution. But when the liberal newspaper editor won’t run the story and the printer won’t even make his pamphlets, he evolves into a determined and outspoken activist; one who eventually comes to denounce the public for the destructive power of the uninformed majority.
Unfortunately, none of the other characters are realized with such depth. Richard Thomas, as the mayor who suppresses the doctor’s findings and argues that nature will eventually settle things out, is a soft-spoken but one-dimensional villain; emphasized by his outfit of a dark cape, top hat and cane. All that’s missing is the moustache to twirl.
Though Hughes directs the company in broad strokes, he also gets interesting performances out of John Procaccino as the cautious newspaper editor, Michael Siberry as the factory owner who is also the doctor's father-in-law, and especially Kathleen McNenny, as the doctor’s loyal wife who realizes that angering her wealthy father can destroy her children’s financial future.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Boyd Gaines; Bottom: Richard Thomas.
Posted on October 13, 2012 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.