BWW Reviews: Olney's A CHORUS LINE is a True Celebration

On the face of it, "A Chorus Line" has to be the least likely of Broadway shows to succeed: sure it's got some catchy tunes from Marvin Hamlish but there's no plot and no acting--apart from the run-of-the-mill lying about your age, your past, your bust-line, etc. All we get are a bunch of gypsy dancers in their sweats and audition tights forced, against their will, to talk about themselves and what drew them to the stage (they just want the gig, thanks very much). To make matters worse there are no costumes until the very end - and for what? That climactic dance number? By rights this should be the absolute pits because there is no star: like Beckett's Godot, the "One" of the show's signature tune never shows up. So there you are, sitting in your seat for 2 hours plus without any intermission (another revenue killer, if there ever was one), a whole lot shorter on cash, and you're stuck with the chorus. Big whoop.

And yet, "A Chorus Line" turns out to be one of the biggest, most endearing hits Broadway ever produced.

It's hard to believe that it has been nearly 40 years since Michael Bennett hosted the all-night bull session that inspired this love letter to supporting players; amazing and touching, too, that audiences are flocking to Olney's Main Stage to watch them fill Scenic Designer James Dardenne's spartan, evocative rehearsal studio with their passion and talent. We're still keen to hear the stories of performers whose dream is to blend in with the crowd; to move as part of a team so perfectly that nobody really notices you. Think about it: if these people do their job right, night after night, when they walk out the stage door nobody will recognize them. Do we really care that much about the huddled masses yearning to precision-kick behind the star? It turns out that we do; we really want to know them, and are grateful for the opportunity to see them again. How wonderful.

Director Stephen Nachamie has taken great care to give Olney audiences as authentic an experience of the original show as possible - right down to the now-horribly-dated birthdays of the original ensemble (ranging from the late 1940's to early 1950's). He has packed the cast with genuine Broadway gypsies, nearly all of them veterans of national tours, with several key players reprising roles they had already played in previous productions. The results are joyful, invigorating and touching, right down to the mis-steps and mistakes (carefully choreographed, mind you) that add the all-important element of spontaneity, the illusion that you're watching a crew of dancers desperate for work, willing to do anything to land the gig. Brad Musgrove has found a suitable mix of contemporary and period costumes for the cast, and Andrew F. Griffin's lighting adds much-needed subtlety to what might in other hands have been a more predictable backstage soap opera.

Leading the cast-and haunting them with his "voice of God" from the booth-is Carl Randolph as the director, Zach, projecting the sullen authority that comes with running a Broadway show while revealing, discreetly, that there might also a vulnerable person behind the authoritarian façade. After a first round of dismissals it is Zach's decision to turn a typical grueling audition into an informal conversation about what draws each performer to the footlights. The cast generally rises to the occasion, each of them revealing the quirks of individuality that Zach seems to be looking for-even if, in the long run, he isn't. As Zach's assistant Larry, Kurt Boehm manages the daunting task of being discreet, and yet in charge of the moment-to-moment logistics of the audition. His role, like the chorus he is helping to cast, is to blend in with the scenery, and it's a lot harder to pull off than it looks.

Among other standouts is Bryan Knowlton as Paul San Marco, whose decision to finally open up about his past leads to one of the most memorable moments in the show. Jennifer Cordiner puts in a star turn as Val, who bluntly and profanely reveals the secret to her stage success: plastic surgery. Her show-stopping number, "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" is hilarious, but a sobering reminder that directors still cast on the basis of chauvinistic standards of beauty. Meanwhile, Jessica Vaccaro's Diana speaks for many dancers when, in "Nothing," she expresses her bewilderment and frustration at a mediocre pseudo-Method acting class, and brings the long audition sequence to a moving close with the show's paean to the life of the stage, "What I Did for Love."

Vaccaro is a new addition to the cast, along with Michelle Aravena-who as Cassie struggles with the realization that she cannot achieve the Hollywood stardom she had hoped for. Cassie's story, unfolding as it does in the final scenes of the show, reveals that sometimes the greatest challenge is to tamp down your natural talent, blunt the irresistible force of your personality, and blend in with the chorus you first emerged from. It turns out that Aravena's greatest success doesn't lie in her ability to electrify the stage (that comes easily), but in her ability to defuse the very elements that make her so compelling to watch. For Aravena as well as her character, it is a victory to come out for the final rendition of "One" and render herself invisible. This too requires great talent.

Times have changed since "A Chorus Line" had its initial epic run; the gays in the original cast had grown up in the Stonewall era, when you faced the prospect of getting arrested most nights just for being yourself. Today the decision to come out as gay or lesbian, while still difficult, has nowhere near the stigma it once had and sodomy laws are (finally) giving way to laws establishing marriage equality. And unlike forty years ago, when the dancers gathered around Michael Bennett despaired of Broadway's impending demise, new musicals and their touring shows provide regular employment for an unprecedented number of talented performers. This show demonstrates why the indomitable spirit of song and dance remains so popular.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Performances are through September 8 at the Olney Theatre Main Stage, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or log into: http://www.olneytheatre.org/shows-a-events/a-chorus-line .

Photo by Stan Barouh

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From This Author Andrew White

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