BWW Review: A CHORUS LINE at Susquehanna Stage Company
Every so often, a show comes along that strikes a chord in the most difficult audience to please: actors. As people of show business, we as actors find ourselves in a difficult position when going to see a show that is not ours; we are critical, we are hopeful, we are looking to be impressed. Often times, we are pleasantly amused and surprised by other works of theatre, but rarely do we find a show that speaks to us as clearly as A CHORUS LINE. The mere title of the show aims itself directly at actors themselves, and has prided itself on representing the trials and tribulations of show business for several decades. Central PA's most recent incarnation, presented by Susquehanna Stage Company, invokes just the same feelings that inspire each and every actor to push just a little bit harder to reach their goals.
Based upon recorded tapes from real Broadway dancers and multiple workshops in the 1970's, A CHORUS LINE was first brought to the Great White Way in 1975 at the Shubert Theatre, after a short Off-Broadway run at The Public Theatre. Michael Bennett, who had contributed much to the show's original conception, directed and co-choreographed the finalized production. The Broadway run of A CHORUS LINE consisted of 6, 137 performances when it finally closed on April 28th, 1990, and was once the longest running Broadway show in history until CATS exceeded their total number of shows. The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and was the recipient of nine, including Best Musical, Best Musical Book, Best Score, and Best Choreography. A CHORUS LINE follows a group of dancers competing for a spot in a new musical's ensemble, delving into their lives as well as the struggles that accompany any performer's journey into show business.
From the very start, Susquehanna Stage Company pays homage to the center of A CHORUS LINE's popularity: dance. The choreography is electric and intense right from the opening number, capturing the essence of a dance audition with sharp, well-defined moves that the cast has mastered to create the look of Broadway professionals. Not only is the choreography entertaining, but the audience almost finds themselves sweating in their seats while wondering how on earth the cast is able to keep breathing while demonstrating both physical and vocal talent. Each number is equal in its difficulty and variety, wonderfully suited for each song and executed without fail. The iconic opening scene is rife with tension and concentration as the ensemble hopefuls fight their way for a spot on the chorus line, and each actor onstage displays their own distinct personality right from the beginning, even those who are eliminated shortly after the auditions begin. Once we are met with those who have survived the first round of cuts, however, the story really begins to unfold.
A CHORUS LINE presented a cast of characters each as unique and distinctive as the actors that bring them to life, an element of the show that those at Susquehanna Stage Company have clearly mastered. The first of these to show their colors is Mike, played by Jason Genise-Gdula. He brings to the table a man who, once he opens up to Zach, the show's director (Chris Kane), radiates confidence and personality. His solo, "I Can Do That," is vastly enjoyable, and Genise-Gdula possess the perfect dance ability to make the story told in the song believable, though his otherwise well-defined vocals may be in need of a bit of a push. He sets the tone perfectly for Bobby, the next victim of Zach's questioning. Bobby is portrayed by Brian Soutner, and is just as expressive and flashy as any aspiring actor could be. Through the use of expert storytelling, he is made unabashedly real, and Soutner thrives on his use of big physicality and natural humor. Bobby is perhaps a bit strange, but Soutner uses the eccentric aspects of his character to his advantage. The audience is endlessly entertained by his sarcasm and blend of authenticity and showmanship, and he won a place as one of the reviewer's favorite characters.
Another notable performance comes from Sheila, one of the more experienced dancers to have found herself on the line. Played by Michelina McGrady, Sheila is a diva to the extreme, self-assured and positively glowing with a confident and slightly flirtatious attitude. McGrady's Sheila is so confident, in fact, that the audience is led to believe that she may be hiding something, and her story, told in the number "At the Ballet," reveals that this is the case exactly. McGrady carries herself very well onstage, her head held high and her dancing and vocal ability that of a seasoned performer. It is the well-developed façade of her character that allows moments when her walls start to fall all the more moving, as we get to look deeper into her life and the lives of others.
Almost completely opposite from Sheila is Bebe, portrayed by Alli McClune. She is as insecure of her body as Sheila reveals in her own, and uses a more withdrawn, diminutive physicality to convey this. McClune's Bebe appears to have accepted her perceived shortcomings, and instead finds solace in dance, where she believes she could be beautiful. Her vocals are put to excellent use as a vehicle to showcase her character's hopefulness, and they combine well with both McGrady and Rebekah Hill, whose character Maggie is also brought to attention in "At the Ballet." Maggie is sweet and innocent, traits that Hill highlights in her facial expressions and in her wonderful soprano voice. She wins over the audience with her character's hope and wishful attitude, and fits in perfectly with the dreamers featured in "At the Ballet."
Adding to the already outstanding female talent is Kristine, played by Jessica Barraclough. From the moment she first begins to speak, she is bursting with energy and enthusiasm, her winning facial expressions and physicality bringing a smile to the audience's face just as wide as her own. She is instantly loveable, possessing a bit of naivety that is expected from her as one of the younger dancers at the audition. She is often reigned in from her excitable state by her husband Al, a fellow dancer portrayed by Jared Korb. Al is all masculinity and strength, and Korb often embodies this mentality throughout the show. However, he possess just as much energy as Barraclough, making the comedic number "Sing!" all the more entertaining as they expertly play off of each other. They make a great pair, one the audience finds themselves rooting for.
Kristine and Al are joined in their youthfulness by Evander Ray as Mark, the youngest dancer on the line who is revealed to have a special interest in his childhood with medical self-diagnosis. He is cheerful, excitable, and playful, shown in his particularly commendable acting and vocal range, yet also possess a sincerity that wins over the audience just as much as his dancing and positive attitude. He is a character with precious little time to himself, but succeeds in making the most of the moments he is given. The same can be said of Connie, played by Cara Ditzler. An extremely relatable character to shorter actors such as this reviewer, she laments the struggles of being 4'10 in a 5'3 and up world, and her frustration is incredibly believable. While her vocals could occasionally use a bit of a push, they are consistently solid and strong, as though she is trying to prove that she is more than just a tiny dancer.
DiAna Morales also has something to prove, and her determination to do so is brought to life quite clearly through Christa Schimitsh. Her character is free and genuine, and Schimitsh possess perhaps some of the best stage presence in the show. Her range of physicality and emotion are that of an expert, and she holds nothing back. Her expressive nature makes her character all the more believable, and draws a laugh from the audience on more than one occasion during her number, "Nothing." Schimitsh's vocals are particularly impressive, and she uses this talent to embody her character's practicality and unflinching views of the world while still keeping enough hope inside of her to pursue her dreams. She is one of the reviewer's favorite characters to watch, and continues to impress throughout the course of the show. Her confidence is palpable, as through watching her somehow gives the audience more confidence as well.
Gretchen Enterline and Gregory Boyer portray Judy and Gregg respectively, and each make the most of their limited moments in the spotlight. Enterline's Judy is erratic, ditzy, and enthusiastic, similar to Kristine but perhaps a bit more self-assured in her talent. She is the furthest thing from shy, and her obliviousness is more than little endearing from an audience perspective. Boyer's Gregg is in turn equally as entertaining, wonderfully flamboyant and not afraid to flaunt his confidence and unique style. His acting is an effective vehicle for revealing his character's story, including the revelation that he has not always been so comfortable in his own skin. Now, however, we as an audience are pleased to see the progress he has made, and Boyer makes this quite evident as he shines when he takes the stage to dance.
Mackenzie Shirk plays Val, an equally talented dancer who has overcome her own self-esteem issues to emerge as a being of immeasurable sass and certainty. Though still harboring more than a shred of bitterness towards past experiences in theatre, she now possess a kind of wisdom that one may not expect from a girl who is so self-assured and outgoing. Her solo number, "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" takes the audience on her journey towards self-acceptance, ending with a trip to the plastic surgeon that Val claims to have changed her life. Shirk displays just the right vocal strength and dance ability to accurately represent Val's experience and her determination to make it ahead in the world after having felt so far behind.
However, Val isn't the only one on the chorus line looking to make a fresh start. Cassie, portrayed by Jordyn McCrady, is a once-proud Broadway dancer who has now fallen from grace, and is searching for a way to return to the world she loves. McCrady's Cassie is natural , a mature and experienced woman who clearly has mastered her craft. However, despite her resignation to the fact that she will never be the star she would like to be, Cassie is desperate and a dreamer, lost in the love of dance and wanting nothing more than to earn a spot back on the stage. McCrady brings us a Cassie who not only is real to the audience but is also real with herself; she does not want special treatment but rather only the chance to prove that she can return to her former glory. She knows herself, her strengths and weaknesses, and is certain that she can work her way back up from the bottom.
McCrady's presence onstage exudes passion and drive, the kind that Cassie still has after all these years away from Broadway. Her passion drives her convincing anger towards her situation and towards the show's director, Zach, whom she once loved and who still sees her as a star. While her vocals are impressive, she particularly shines when she dances, a sight that is mesmerizing and yet expected of the seasoned Broadway veteran we believe McCrady's Cassie to be. Her number, "The Music and The Mirror," is perhaps one of the most spectacular moments in an already overwhelmingly impressive show. She works incredibly well with Chris Kane as Zach, a man who remains shrouded in mystery during the show as he can be heard asking each member on the chorus line very intimate questions about their lives. However, while interested in each dancer, he has a particular attachment towards Cassie that causes him to push her harder than any other character in the show. On the whole, Zach is driven and serious, determined to put on the best show possible, but Cassie is capable of breaking him in a way that comes across so well onstage. Kane allows the character to lose himself in his anger, a feeling that stems from his remaining love for Cassie and is so different from the all-business director the audience has become so accustomed to. Their chemistry together is potent and powerful, and moments where they are quiet onstage together are even more poignant after so much action earlier on in the show.
In addition to Cassie, the character of Paul provides us with perhaps one of the most emotionally charged moments of A CHORUS LINE. While likable and sympathetic from the start, Julian Morales crafts a character that is perhaps the most genuine in the show. His acting is superb, and as a result he is able to deliver one of the most provoking and emotional performances of the show. Paul's life has been the furthest thing from easy, and when finally pushed to discuss it with Zach, Morales allows Paul to simply release the floodgates of his feelings. He becomes a character that the audience irrevocably cares for, especially while witnessing him bear his soul. His performance seems to transcend the walls of the theatre, and the audience sometimes is given the impression that they are witnessing something private and intimate, as though Morales is sharing a secret that they should not be hearing. This is a testament to Morales' indisputable talent as an actor, and his perfect physicality, facial expression, and line delivery do nothing but seal the deal. His monologue steals the show, and brings more than one tear to the eye.
A CHORUS LINE is an iconic and incredibly important show for anyone dedicated to theatre, and Susquehanna Stage Company's rendition of the show is a true testament to the power of live performance. Each member of the cast is completely in character for each and every moment they are onstage, never breaking themselves away from the frustration, fear, excitement, and hope that surrounds any audition. They are lost in the twisting, turning, and uncertain nature of the business, and any and all actors in the audience are reminded of their own dedication to this craft during the especially moving and beautifully executed song, "What I Did For Love." Not only does The Combined vocal talent exceed any definition of stellar, but the dancing by each and every cast member lights up the stage and the hearts of the audience with sheer enjoyment and energy. Each person onstage, even those not given as much stage time as the others, works hard and blends incredibly well together, just like the chorus they are trying to portray. The show is moving and occasionally haunting, one that has not left the mind of the reviewer even after the curtain has closed.
Assisted by an incredible pit and costumes straight out of the seventies, the talent displayed during Susquehanna Stage Company's A CHORUS LINE is of the highest caliber. It is a production that serves to remind each and every actor just why they have ever taken to the stage, and it is one that will certainly endure for many decades to come. This, quite simply, is not a show to miss.
Presented by Susquehanna Stage Company through August 20th. Next is CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Visit www.susquehannastageco.com.