Review: A CHORUS LINE Dazzles and Delights at Theater West End

Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying the moments as they pass into memory.

By: Aug. 29, 2022
Review: A CHORUS LINE Dazzles and Delights at Theater West End

Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying the moments as they pass into memory. A CHORUS LINE teaches the audience this through a story that is rooted in the classic vein of "let's put on a show," but contains a universal message that rings true to anyone with a passion, whose life is better because they did what they love. Theater West End knows this, bringing in a bona fide A CHORUS LINE alum to direct their sold-out three-week engagement of the show. Director Maymie Paul was part of the first national tour of A CHORUS LINE, later joining the show on Broadway. As a result, she brings a definitive sense of authority and respect for the source material, a stage show now forty-seven years old but still as timeless as ever.

The show begins not when the lights dim and the curtains open, but as the audience take their seats while the best of 1970s pop music blares over the sound system. The sparsity of the stage is intentional, we're entering the world of a musical in its earliest stages: the round of auditions for an ensemble chorus who will support an unnamed, female star. As I took my seat, I noticed some shuffling in the sound booth, some discussion about light cues, while other theatre patrons made their way into my row. Content with listening to "Boogie Wonderland" while I browsed the digital program, I then noticed some action occurring on the stage.

Theater West End has always been a small theatre, but their productions make the place feel larger than life. The audience always feels an immediate connection with the performers because no other theatrical setting - in my experience here in Central Florida - ever puts them as intimately close as here. For A CHORUS LINE, it draws us into the world of the story. The action on the stage comprised of a few dancers coming out, making their way around patrons getting to their seats, to do some warm-up exercises. Clad in unitards, bodysuits, and other forms of dancewear, they interacted with each other as they made space for stretches, greeted old friends, waved at a couple in the audience. But they were getting ready for the audition that would take up the next two and a half hours of their - and our - lives.

As soon as a production assistant noted that all the seats had been filled (Theater West End's entire three-week run had understandably sold out), the assistant choreographer Larry (Daniel Kermidas) began instructing the dancers. At once, everyone moved in unison. Not perfect unison, mind you. They had only just learned the steps. It's a mess, but a marvelous one as we see each dancer find their footing and work their hardest to show they can do it. After several combinations and groups, director Zach (Myles Thoroughgood) whittles down the dancers to initially sixteen, before suddenly calling out for Cassie (Danielle Lang) to join. Among who do not make it are a lime-green leotard who needed guidance and a headband boy that struggled to keep eye contact with anything but the ground. But for the seventeen remaining, they are in for the strangest audition of their lives.

Zach explains that this production is unique as he needs strong dancers, some of which may take on small parts in the show. But he wants to know them beyond the résumé, so he asks them to talk about themselves, occasionally with a probing question. The dancers are not used to this particular method of audition, but indulge the director. First up, Mike Costa (Alexander LaPlante), who recounts how childhood visits to his sister's dance class sparked a curiosity in himself, as he realized he could do it, too.

"I Can Do That," he sings, tapping his way across the stage in delight. Within the context of the musical, he's just speaking to the director. But for the audience, it's a peek into his inner dancer, the talent that he's holding but not showing to Zach, who only sees him as speaking on stage. Much of the musical numbers in the first act of A CHORUS LINE can best be described as inner monologues - inner dance-ologues, even. It's a layered approach to how musicals tell their story because our suspension of disbelief is not the traditional expectation where in this world, everyone breaks out into song. As the audience, we are treated to the song-and-dance routines we expect. But within the narrative, we must remember that in the real world of these dancers, they're simply just talking to Zach about these experiences. Nobody's actually dancing in that world, that's a performance for us outside of it.

Perhaps that is why A CHORUS LINE functions better on the stage rather than the silver screen. When the audience is in the room with these dancers, watching them stand in line, nervously awaiting their turn to speak, they are part of that energy of the show. The response of the audience - scattered applause, cheers, showstopping standing ovations - informs the production when to take the pause or to keep going on. In a movie, particularly the 1985 A Chorus Line film, we are so removed from the action because of that silver screen barrier that there's less of an investment in watching these characters perform.

As such, musical numbers that seem awkward and out of place in the film (the shortened "At the Ballet," for example) come alive much better in its original stage translation. The aforementioned "At the Ballet" sees Sheila (Bethany Hemmans), Maggie (Maggie Brennan), and Bebe (Lauren Stromak) sing individually, but together, almost as if they both acknowledge the presence but not bring attention to it. The light plays around here on the stage to let us know all three characters, again whilst Sheila is speaking individually to Zach, are taking part in a collective dream. As the lights dim into spotlights of yellow and blue, faint reflections from the mirrors behind plunge us into their subconscious - each one remembering how ballet was the perfect escape to difficult home lives. Suddenly, the other auditioneers on that line shift, no longer their characters, but the shadows of a balletic memory each of the three has shared, as they dance and show exactly how everything was beautiful at the ballet.

By now, the audience understands now that every dancer will get their chance to shine. It may not be in a song, since Kristine and Al (Julia Famiglietti and Ben Gaetanos) show us why in the patter of "Sing!" but perhaps some dramatic or comedic monologue. Bobby (Ryan Matthew Petty) goes on a long and drawn out tangent about his conservative family and eccentric childhood while the others muse to themselves ("And...") how strange this audition is. Young Mark (Gabriel Ramos) then steers the conversation to the moments of sexual awakening in the lengthy "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" in which he's primarily speaking whilst every dancer is remembering those awkward years of change. Scattered amidst the "Montage" as it's traditionally called is a one-two punch that jumps from dancer to dancer and includes songs within the overarching "Hello Twelve..." number.

Connie (Soontaree Jaisin-Simms) explains her frustrations at her height causing her to play younger to her age, experienced Don (Nate Elliott) recounts a nightclub stripping gig, Judy (Starr Needre) remember childhood through her parents' eyes ("Mother"). Occasionally, a dancer gets to sing their story, with Diana (Ciera Livermore) remembering a drama teacher she hated and her displeasure of improv ("Nothing"), while Richie (Montez Walker) showcases how he almost became a kindergarten teacher before deciding on dance ("Gimme the Ball"). Val (Samantha O'Donnell) rounds it out with an on-the-nose commentary about how a dancer's physical assets outweigh their talent with "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three."

This back-and-forth between each dancer's story could get old really quickly, but A CHORUS LINE knows how to alternate between who tells a good story versus who sings a good song versus who dances circles around everyone. And it peppers in a variety of experiences, including those that - up until A CHORUS LINE - often remained unspoken among the community at the time. Particularly, we get two different perspectives on what it means to come out. While Greg Gardner (Bobby Wojciechowski) relates his moment of homosexual clarity in a rather self-deprecating way, Paul (Karlo Buxo) has an Act Two monologue whose emotional heaviness causes Zach to break his otherwise stoic approach to the dancers as he rushes on thet stage to comfort him.

Then we get to Cassie, someone who occasionally addresses Zach with a knowing familiarity, but he constantly waves her off about it in the first act. By Act Two, we learn why as she reveals she hasn't worked in over a year and wants to "come home," as she calls it, to the chorus. Zach thinks the chorus is beneath her, she's a star and he helped make her one. But she convinces him that being a star is not what she needs: she just needs to dance ("The Music and the Mirror"). In an extended dance break in the song, we see exactly why she was made a star. Alone on the stage, she commands such a presence as she goes through turns and dips and pirouettes as if she invented them.

Impressed by the talent he already knew she has, he sends her with the other dancers to learn the combination for "One," a 1930s-style showcase in which the ensemble chorus is meant to support the star of the show. Everyone has their own struggles with the number. Some fall out of formation, others don't quite know how to work with a hat. But they are consistent, they know the number on a technical level. Cassie's approach, unfortunately, is too good for Zach. He constantly points out how she is performing as the star rather than the chorus, the attention shouldn't be on her. He pulls her aside, asking if this is what she really wants. She tells him yes, she'll happily dance the chorus line, because she'd be proud to be one of them.

A tap routine then sidelines one of the dancers, who is rushed to the hospital while the others are faced with the mortality of their profession. There will come a day when they will no longer dance. But, as Diana points out, even if that day comes, it will all have been worth it ("What I Did for Love"). Eventually, Zach selects his final eight, a difficult decision for both him and the audience as we've grown to care for all the characters. But liking someone isn't enough in this business, and difficult decisions still need to be made.

Theater West End had originally planned to mount A CHORUS LINE in late May of 2020; needless to say extenuating circumstances of that year pushed back this production. As we round the corner into the final third of 2022, the show has finally seen production for three weekends this August and early September. As I mentioned earlier, all these performances are sold out. And after attending a show, I can see why. Setting aside the limited seating in a small theatre like this, every production I've attended at Theater West End has always found a way to utilize their stage to the audience's benefit. The lion's share of seats are on stage left and right, while the central view take up a couple rows and two-top tables. And yet, because of this small space, the audience can see everything with ease and comfort. Heck, at moments the dancers will be in between the aisles of the seats themselves, helping to better sell the immersive nature of Theater West End's black box theatre.

Derek Critzer's set design may seem sparse, but offers an unfettered approach to the iconic role of the mirror. A CHORUS LINE would typically offer a row of mirrors on the stage that the dancers use when rehearsing. At Theater West End, we do still get mirrors, but not the traditional floor-length mirror. Instead, the pieces are broken and scattered across the beams, reminding us not only of a mirror's practical purpose, but also its thematic purpose to the story. Splitting apart the mirror and giving us only fragments reminds us that each dancer shares only fragments of who they are. The audience only see portions of the reflections that the dancers offer to both Zach and them. This fine-tuning of visibility adds sparkle to the lighting design, too, when the spotlights hit the mirrors a certain way, the stark and drab nature of the audition setting becomes a kaleidoscope of color and patterns on the stage floor as each dancer sings or dances internally.

Previous productions at Theater West End have offered small bands or orchestras; I've seen a few shows where the band remained on the stage for the duration of the production. However, with A CHORUS LINE, we do have to settle for pre-recorded music. In a way, with A CHORUS LINE it helps to add to the multiple layers of reality we work with in the show. I'm sure on a Broadway stage they'll have their orchestra in the pit. But within the confines of Theater West End, the pre-recordings help add to the internal monologue approach I often give to this musical. The real world should only ever sound like a tinny cassette player with some guide track used for rehearsals. But when the numbers go into what's inside these dancers heads, we venture into the unreality of what musicals are as full-fledged orchestral score supports the character, even if it's not actually live on the stage.

Unfortunately, the reliance on pre-recorded music does mean a lot of balancing on the sound board. And, at least at this performance, a few mics get lost in the shuffle. On a couple occasions, the mic for a couple character simply weren't turned on, or caused unintentional feedback with a speaker. Thankfully, the performers projected well regardless of the mic outage, and the intimate nature of the theatre meant we could have heard them un-micced anyway. But it's a small gripe that I'm sure has an easy fix for the future.

And, again, the talent on the stage knows how to work when the tech does not. They even make "mistakes" look authentic. As mentioned earlier, certain aspects of "One" require the dancers to simply not "get" it yet. We need to see them struggle and adapt because, in their world, they just learned these moves an hour ago. In our world, we know they've had weeks of training. So to see an actor lose their place, it's a deception within a deception. It's already hard enough to be a good actor, but to be a good actor that is playing being bad at it takes an extra level of difficulty. It's a finely-tuned process to make something as inconsequential as "skipping a step and realizing you're ahead of the others" look like a genuine error. It takes a great discipline for these performers to "make mistakes" and I was glad to see it all come off flawlessly (flawfully?) here.

All this, of course, can be pointed back to the diligence of director Maymie Paul. With over three decades under her belt and previous experience with the actual Broadway show, she offers a guiding hand to all the performers, carving out the characters to play as authentically as possible while favoring the performers' own strengths. Both she and assistant choreographer Bobby Wojciechowski make sure that every number shines whether it be one or a dozen players on the stage. Even when things are meant to look messy and unkempt, such as the early audition rounds, they make sure everyone moves in a way that's seamlessly precise to the number. A few times, there's a marvelous marriage of the kaleidoscope lighting with a Busby Berkeley-esque kaleidoscope of dancers in clockwise circular formation.

That Berkeley style of dancing already seemed passé in the 1970s when A CHORUS LINE first opened, but had settled into a classic, "old-school" kind of dancing that always gets more and more impressive as time goes by. It also locks "One" to a very specific time, one which the further we get away from, the more out-of-touch it seems with whatever "modern" style of dancing exists. And yet, it becomes more and more timeless to see it remounted in the decades that follow, because it's a method that asks a very specific and strict discipline to pull off. Turning dancers into cogs of a machine, in a sense, with specific tasks to make it all move.

Much of the narrative thesis for this musical looks at how these dancers, of varying degrees of experience but mostly veterans, will be nothing more than the chorus: faceless, forgettable bodies in motion a mere twenty feet from stardom. And yet, A CHORUS LINE celebrates the facelessness, because it's a celebration of the craft. Whether it be dancing, singing, the arts, any form of livelihood done with love. These people do it because they love it, and they'll love it long after the stop doing it. Every generation of dancers has new ones waiting in the wings as they reach a "point of no return" themselves. And yet, we embrace the Now while we are here. Theater West End's production would have been marvelous in 2020, but I'm glad that we're finally seeing it in the Now. And in the years to come, the show will still live on at other theatres, other venues. But for now, they're doing it with love at Theater West End, and Central Florida could not be any more grateful.

As mentioned twice before but always worth repeating, these shows are sold out. That's a testament to how good this production is, but also how dedicated our communities are to local theatre and the arts. If by some miracle you manage to get a ticket, or if you've already picked one up weeks earlier, you are in for a treat with this show.

A CHORUS LINE runs August 19 through September 4, 2022. Tickets can be purchased Click Here based upon availability.


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