Since it made its debut more than 40 years ago, A Chorus Line has not only become one of the most successful and legendary musicals of all time, but it also predicted the obsession the entertainment industry has today for backstories. What would the Olympics or reality TV be without them? But when A Chorus Line hit Broadway like a battering ram in 1975, the revealing confessionals by its 17 Broadway wanna-bes was a novelty, and part of the reason why it became such a hugely popular and enduring show. Theater League brought the latest national tour to the Civic Arts Plaza this weekend, and with it, we were able to reacquaint ourselves with sultry Sheila, vulgar Val, bitchy Bobby, determined Diana, and the others whose motivation wasn’t to be a star on Broadway, but just to get a job.
With Baayork Lee, who played the original Connie on Broadway, in charge, A Chorus Line is guaranteed stability wherever it plays. Over the years, Lee has directed or choreographed over 35 international productions of the show, including the 2006 Broadway revival. In a way, it’s like encasing the show in amber, preserving it the way original producer Michael Bennett intended it. The story is well known: how Bennett created his characters by conducting auditions and workshops and then selecting the most interesting to be featured in the musical. In casting her shows, Lee continues to look for qualities in applicants that reflect those of the original characters. And since she knew all of them, there is no one better suited to do so.
All of this make the current national tour predictable, but still riveting theater. It’s still mystifying though, how the audition-within-the-show’s demanding director Zach wants each performer to bare their souls to him, as if their individuality would really make a difference in his casting for what is basically an anonymous dance ensemble of interchangeable parts. Each of the 17 finalists is too much in fear to wonder why Zach is asking them all these personal questions; they just obey as if he were a strict schoolmarm waiting to rap them on their knuckles with a ruler.
Zach, well played by Noah Bridgestock, spends most of the show out of sight, a formless voice from the somewhere in the rafters, putting the dancers through their paces. Calabasas High School graduate Nick Berke, who plays Greg, said in a recent interview that the actors focus their eyes on a blue light in the back of the theater, which is supposed to represent Zach. Except for a brief period at the end of the show, the dancers’ dialog was not with each other, but only with Zach.
For the most part, A Chorus Line wears its age well, except when it makes references to ages old pop culture personages like Ed Sullivan, Doris Day, Anna May Wong, and Jill St. John. Cassie’s solo performance on “The Music and the Mirror,” once lauded as the longest solo in Broadway history, is no longer as extraordinary as it once was, but it’s still boffo entertainment and Madison Tinder hits it out of the park. Similiarly, Orianna Hilliard, who plays Diana, does a splendid job singing the show’s signature ballad, “What I Did For Love.” The other members of the cast perfectly encapsulate their respective characters, with especially effective performances turned in by Kahlia Davis as Sheila, Samantha Cho Grossman as Connie, and Pierre Maris as Paul. And when the bows come and the cast comes strutting out in their golden top hats and tuxedos to the tune of “One,” it’s still a thrill, and we realize that despite two hours of getting to know the characters, in the end, it is hard to distinguish one from the other.
A Chorus Line is a show that can be one of the hardest for an actor or a dancer because there are no sets, storylines or relationships to fall back on. It’s all about who your character is and making that come across in the way in which it was intended. One can’t help but wonder if each actor went through the exact same experience their characters went through when they auditioned for the national tour. That aspect of the theater will never change, which explains why A Chorus Line will continue to resonate not just for audiences, but for those in the business of theater as well.
A Chorus Line plays at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza through Sunday, March 25.