BWW Review: Tony Yazbeck, Robyn Hurder Bring a Thrilling Dynamic To New York City Center's A CHORUS LINE

The lack of permanence that allows new artists endless chances to bring their own interpretations to classic material is the most significant aspect that separates live theatre from movies and television. But in musical theatre, it's sometimes the case that a director/choreographer such as Jerome Robbins or Bob Fosse may create visuals that become so indelible in the public's mind that they become fixtures of most remountings. In the case of A CHORUS LINE, it's the whole show.

BWW Review: Tony Yazbeck, Robyn Hurder Bring a Thrilling Dynamic To New York City Center's A CHORUS LINE
Tony Yazbeck and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Michael Bennett is not officially credited with writing a word or composing a note of this masterpiece that has Broadway dancers opening up about their personal lives. The beautifully textured music that so effectively drives the movement of the piece is by Marvin Hamlisch. The vastly mature, emotionally thick lyrics are by Edward Kleban and the fascinating book by Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood is based on the real-life stories told to Bennett by Broadway dancers, tape recorded during legendary group sessions.

And yet, the musical is always regarded as Michael Bennett's A CHORUS LINE. It was his vision, his staging and his choreography that guided the writing, so much so that when the musical was awarded the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Bennett was named among the recipients, making him the only non-author director ever so honored.

And ever since his death in 1987 it has been the mission of a handful of his colleagues to recreate his staging for major productions. So, just as they did for the 2006 Broadway revival, Bennett's co-choreographer Bob Avian and original cast member Baayork Lee serve, respectively, as director and choreographer for New York City Center's Gala Presentation.

Robin Wagner's iconic set design (a bare stage, a white line and moving mirrors) and Theoni V. Aldredge's equally iconic costumes (assorted dancewear and those glimmering finale costumes) are also utilized and Ken Billington adapts Tharon Musser's original lighting for the City Center stage. Music director Patrick Vaccariello conducts the 17-piece orchestra playing the original orchestrations by Bill Byers, Hershy Kay and Jonathan Tunick.

This is, in the best sense of the word, a museum-like production and the brilliance of the piece in its original form is something every theatre lover should witness. But even in a recreation, new performers bring in new dynamics, and in this production there's a thrilling dynamic provided by two acting performances.

The continuous action takes place at a dance audition for a Broadway musical. By the end of the opening sequence, "I Hope I Get It," the crowd is whittled down to seventeen hopefuls competing for four male and four female chorus spots in a new show directed by a Bennett stand-in named Zach.

At City Center, Zach is played by superlative actor/singer/dancer Tony Yazbeck, an expert at conveying a character's subtext through dance. In the opening moments, as he takes his auditioners through the paces of various routines, there's a distinct tension in his voice and a distressed physicality as he calls out instructions. (The cause of his tension will be revealed in time.) This is dropped and relaxed whenever he demonstrates the moves to his dancers. Suddenly, everything is fluid and calming. This simple contrast tells the audience that dance is not only Zach's profession, but his comfort zone, his personal therapist.

BWW Review: Tony Yazbeck, Robyn Hurder Bring a Thrilling Dynamic To New York City Center's A CHORUS LINE
Robyn Hurder (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The same applies to Robyn Hurder's Cassie, Zach's former protégée and former lover, who surprises him with her presence. Years ago Zach created featured Broadway roles for Cassie where her dancing stopped the show, but when it became apparent that her acting chops didn't match her terpsichorean skills, she found herself as a star with no place to shine.

Of the numerous issues between Cassie and Zach that arise during the audition, the major professional point is that the choreographer requires a unified ensemble and has no room for someone who stands out with star quality. Hurder effectively shows that Cassie is seriously struggling with her effort to tone down her pizzazz.

In the scene where she explains to the confused Zach why she's auditioning for a chorus job, Hurder has Cassie's desperation build and build into a suppressed panic that propels her into "The Music and The Mirror." Her strong belt is used to make the vocal climax land as a plea for help. But then, just as in Yazbeck's Zach, the tension is released from her body and she begins dancing, not as Zach wants her to dance, but on her own terms. Suddenly there's joy and balance and purpose. It's extremely well done, as is their confrontation just before Zach makes his final casting decision. This is a Zach and Cassie pairing where you really see what connects them and what drove them apart.

There are other marvelous moments to enjoy, as performed by this very talented company. Tommy Bracco's Mike is a lovable Italian tough guy with acrobatic grace performing "I Can Do That." J. Elaine Marcos treats her "Dance Ten; Looks Three" scene as her own personal stand-up comedy act, while Jay Armstrong Johnson's smarmy Bobby also nails every laugh. There's a fine simplicity to Eddie Gutierrez's performance as Paul, telling the story of his father's reaction seeing him backstage dressed for a drag show. Tara Kostmayer's Diana sings the score's best known songs, the acting school saga "Nothing" and the anthemic "What I Did For Love" with earnest warmth.

But, as ever, Michael Bennett remains the star of A CHORUS LINE, and he will remain so as there are those willing to pass down his brilliance.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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