BWW Review: A CHORUS LINE Not Quite a Singular Sensation at MainStage Irving-Las Colinas
Watching a production of A CHORUS LINE in 2019, it's amazing just how much of the musical still holds up since its premiere over forty years ago. Save for a handful of dated cultural allusions (does anyone still have AstroTurf on their patio?), the triumphs and trials of a handful of Broadway hopefuls still feel as relevant as ever, especially for those who have ever had the pleasure and pain of standing on "the line." While the material may be familiar territory for audiences and performers alike, the musical presents incredible challenges for the cast and design team. The fairly large ensemble must consist of double and triple threats, performers who can act with passion, belt their faces off, and dance for two straight hours without any signs of fatigue. The end result ought to be a transcendent experience, one that transforms the banality of everyday life into a moving work of art.
While the current production of A CHORUS LINE at MainStage Irving-Las Colinas works hard to present a cohesive and coherent vision of what the show can be, the musical frequently feels more like an open cattle call than an exhibition of extraordinary talent, the stunning interspersed within the underwhelming. The show runs through November 9.
Director Michael Serrecchia clearly has a great passion for the A CHORUS LINE, one that shows itself through his careful recreation of much of the staging and design elements of the original 1975 Broadway production (of which he was a cast member). While this may not be the most original production of the show one is likely to see, the original staging is iconic for a reason, creating powerful visuals that emphasize the individuality of the wide cast of characters while still uniting them into a unified whole. The is also an almost non-stop dance number, and Serrecchia seems to have wisely chosen his choreographers. Julie Russell Stanley and Megan Kelly Bates recreate some of the most memorable routines from the original production while also incorporating their own, spanning a range of styles from jazz to ballet and adjusting the dynamics of their movements frequently enough to keep audiences enthralled. That is, when the numbers ae executed correctly.
The dancing skills of the ensemble as a whole are inconsistent, most notably when they absolutely should not be. While there are missteps in the opening number, this is intentional; "I Hope I Get It" is meant to convey the hectic nature of open auditions and the varying skill levels of those who attend them. After this point, though, audiences expect at least attempts at perfection. Curiously, the ensemble is most in sync in the execution of their movements during "One," when the cast is meant to be learning the number for the first time. Hat flips and kicked legs become largely indistinguishable from one another, the kind of focused and exacting performance that one would expect to see from a group of performers competing for only eight spots in a new Broadway show. Which makes it all the more befuddling that, when the number is reprised as a full-out finale, this exactitude is gone, and the cast's flagging energy becomes apparent. At exactly the moment when the script demands that the cast perform so perfectly in unison that they become a unified whole, a true chorus line, it becomes all too easy for audience members to identify obvious mistakes and out-of-step dancers.
To be quite clear, there are a number of actors who deliver the practically perfect performances necessary for the musical. Caitlin Jones as the curvy, sailor-mouthed Val delivers one of the funniest performances of the evening, never losing her character's distinctive sass and well-deserved confidence. Her comedic timing is matched by Alejandra Bigio as Diana who tells stories with her hands in such a way that is both endearing and inviting. Bigio also has two of the production's stand-out musical numbers, showing off her boundless energy and good humor in "Nothing" before belting out the show's bittersweet eleven o'clock number "What I Did for Love." Jones and Bigio also dance exceedingly well, a talent in which they are joined by Christine Phelan as Sheila and Grace Bradbury as Cassie. All four of these actresses (as well as a handful of others) execute their many dance numbers largely flawlessly. If they happen to stand out or draw attention to themselves, it is only because they are successfully achieving what others onstage may not be.
As Cassie, a former chorine desperate to rejoin the line before she ages out of her career, Bradbury does her best, holding her own during her solo dance in "The Music and the Mirror," mixing a professional's precision with an artist's fluidity. However, Bradbury is much too young for the role and looks it too. At certain moments, such as when Cassie talks about how she has been in the business for 17 years or works to rekindle the relationship with her former lover, the casting decision strikes audience members as having been poorly made. In another ten to twenty years, though, Bradbury should absolutely try to tackle the role again.
While the men are not nearly as strong in their dancing as the women, they largely match them in their acting skill. Preston Isham (Mike), Evan Anderson (Greg), and Dakota Medlin (Bobby) make for a great comedic trio, captivating audiences through some of the more humorous monologues in the show while savoring every beat and punchline. As Paul, a high-school dropout scarred by abuse and homophobia, Jonah Munroe tackles one of the most difficult and underrated roles in the musical. His lengthy monologue about growing up and discovering his love for dance mixes a vulnerable yet ironic tone with a slowly building pathos, one that makes the character's ultimate fate in the show all the more jarring.
While individual singing voices may be better than others in the cast, the ensemble blends well together under the musical direction of Scott A. Eckert. Many of these numbers overlap melodies and phrases, and the cast executes these complicated musical patterns without any discernible slips of the tongue. Furthermore, the orchestra under Eckert's direction plays many of the numbers with passion, style, and precision. While a person close to the show told me there had been a last-minute change in the orchestra pit, one would never have noticed as the entire band played like a well-conducted locomotive.
Unfortunately, while the orchestra and cast were balanced on the whole, the sound design/operation didn't always do any favors for individual voices. Entire spoken and sung lines were missed because a microphone was turned on too late or not at all, and some lyrics in the musical's centerpiece "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" were completely indecipherable. Similarly, while Jason Foster's lighting design created beautiful visuals for the most part, there were numerous moments when actors' faces were obscured in shadow. Common sense would tell these performers to "find their light," but there wasn't always light to be found.
All in all, MainStage's A CHORUS LINE makes for a largely enjoyable evening, one that showcases the incredible talent of the area's youngest rising stars. Like any audition, though, spectators will have to sit patiently the best to come to the forefront.