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BWW Review: A CHORUS LINE at Signature Theatre

BWW Review: A CHORUS LINE at Signature Theatre
The company of the Signature Theatre production of A Chorus Line.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

I am often asked what my all time favorite Broadway musical is. I always reply A Chorus Line. I consider it to be a perfect musical in every way. The show's original director/choreographer Michael Bennett captured the heart and soul of the dancer so beautifully in what I consider to be his masterwork. Marvin Hamlisch's music and Edward Kleban's lyrics were and still are one of the most inventive theatre scores ever written. James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book (based off of taped interviews of Broadway dancers conducted by Bennett) frame the songs to sheer perfection. Paul's monologue in the show is actually based on Dante's true story.

I saw A Chorus Line well over thirty times when it originally played Broadway's Shubert Theatre. Tickets were cheap back then. Since then I have seen the show in a number of different productions including the 2006 Broadway revival, a couple of national tours and more. The most unique one was probably watching the tour in 1990 or 1991 play Westbury Music the round. The line turned every so often to play to a different section of the house.

Signature Theatre is currently presenting A Chorus Line in a new staging directed by Signature's Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner and features new choreography by Denis Jones. Yes, you read that right. This might be the first professional production I've seen of A Chorus Line that does not use all or most of Michael Bennett's original choreography.

Signature's MAX Theatre is way more intimate than a Broadway house so you could say A Chorus Line has come full circle because the show began its life in the 299 seat Newman space at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre before moving to Broadway. The seating capacity in the MAX for A Chorus Line is 275.

Gardiner brings the line downstage so its almost in your lap and Zach isn't just a voice in the dark as he is seated at a table in the audience. These are two very fine new touches.

The show starts with the familiar sound of a piano playing DADA DADA DA DA DA and we hear director/choreographer Zach (Matthew Risch) calling out "Step kick, kick, leap, kick, touch...again" to a group of Broadway dancer hopefuls. After going through a full combination he asks that they do it facing away from the mirrors which are upstage on the studio wall. On his "5,6,7,8" the stage explodes both visually and audibly as a single piano becomes a wall of sound from the hidden ten piece orchestra conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. This is no ordinary dance audition because Zach wants to know more about the dancers than what is on their resumes. Through the course of the show you find out what makes these dancers tick and what drives them.

I said a little ways back that this production has pretty much all new choreography by Denis Jones. This applies to everything except sections of the opening number "I Hope I Get It" and both times you hear and see "One" there are homages to Bennett as well. Unfortunately because we have those hints of Bennett's work it becomes more obvious that Jones' choreography looks rudimentary in many places when put against Bennett's original. The "Hello, Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" montage is a prime example of this. I missed the inventiveness.

My biggest disappointment in the production is "The Music and the Mirror" which could very well be my favorite number in the show. As Cassie, the girl who got out of the chorus at 22 and wants to return at 32, Emily Tyra sings the number quite well. What is missing in her performance, at least for me, is that sense of desperateness and urgency to land the job. It is not apparent in her acting and it isn't shown off in her choreography. The music keeps building and building and the dance does not. It should be noted here that Tyra has overcome some incredible obstacles health wise recently. I admire her efforts but without any drive or strong sense of want Cassie's big moment doesn't exist.

Of all the performances my favorite would have to be Samantha Marisol Gershman as Diana Morales. Her performance of "Nothing' where she recants her adventures in Mr. Karp's acting class is a definite highlight. Later on, her lead vocal on "What I Did for Love" drives the point home that dancers are a rare breed of performer.

Maria Rizzo's Sheila (the most mature of the dancers) shows off her strong vocal skills on "At the Ballet" with Jillian Wessel as Bebe and Kayla Pecchioni as Maggie.

Adena Ershow's Val has all the spunk and go get em that the role requires. Her "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" (you might know it as the tits and ass song) is a little gem of a performance.

I did find it a little odd that Risch's Zach follows more along the lines of what Michael Douglass did in the movie version. He doesn't dance very much until the finale which I found strange for a choreographer.

Phil Young's Ritchie left me saying "Shit Ritchie, Are you in the same show?" I get the whole energetic thing with this character but I found Young to be too over the top.

Production wise Jason Sherwood's setting gives a lot of possibilities for lighting designer Adam Honoré to turn the walls many different colors. I'm assuming it was a choice not to light the floor but I did miss those color bursts in the mirrors.

Sarah Cubbage's costumes are primarily made up of dancewear of course but she pays tribute to original costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge by putting Zach's assistant Larry (Joshua Buscher) in a costume that resembles the design for Zach in the original staging.

Jon Kalbfleisch's red hot ten piece orchestra cooks playing a combination of the original 1975 charts by Billy Byers, Hershy Kay and Jonathan Tunick (with assists from many others) and the 2006 Tunick revision. If you really know the show you will realize which is which. A big shout out to lead trumpeter Chris Walker for nailing one of the hardest blows ever written for a Broadway show. The book is up in the rafters a good portion of the time. Other featured musicians include Ben Bokor's (Reed 2) sultry sax solo midpoint in "The Music and the Mirror") and the beast of a drummer known as Dave Murray laying down a solid foundation throughout.

Overall Gardiner and company have brought A Chorus Line back to a more intimate approach with some good new touches. However to semi quote Ed Kleban "There is still a lot I am not certain of" with the overall outcome.

Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes with no intermission.

A Chorus Line runs through January 5, 2020 in the MAX at Siganture Theatre which is located at 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA.

For tickets, click here.

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