REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
A Chorus Line, the 1975 Broadway musical that broke barriers and ran for over 6,000 performances, is one of those shows that you rarely see on local stages, which causes one to wonder why, because the show is a director’s dream. With no sets, makeup, props, or costumes (save the spangled gold outfits and hats used during the bows) to worry about, it reduces musical theater to its bare essence: singing, dancing, and acting. Recognizing this, Oak Park High School’s Allan Hunt has put together a stunning array of talent in its current production of the show, which has two final performances today at 2 and 7 pm.
As Hunt noted during his pre-show remarks, A Chorus Line had no stars, no romantic storyline, and no antagonist. Its plot can be summed up in two words: “an audition.” Twenty-three dancers show up to audition for eight openings in a chorus ensemble for an unnamed New York musical. After six are eliminated following the opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” we get to intimately know the remaining seventeen as the show’s choreographer puts them through their paces and asks questions about their lives, background, and desires. The show won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban.
When you get right down to it, there are only two real songs in the score, “One” and “What I Did For Love,” both of which became hits. The rest grow out of musical monologs, as the aspirants tell their stories through song and dance. It’s amazing how we get to know the personalities of more characters in A Chorus Line than in any other show, without any one being a star. Consequently, OPHS’s production has a multitude of standout performances. Hunt usually double-casts his shows, but with A Chorus Line, he had to come up with an ensemble that could dance well, which made it difficult to find two such performers for each part.
The character who pulls the whole show together is Zach, the choreographer who leads the audition, played with fortitude and command by Matt Williams. Zach has to be forceful, inquisitive, ruthless, as well as sympathetic, and Williams embodies all of these attributes as he puts the candidates through their paces. The character of his assistant, normally a male named Larry, is played by Julia Schlatter and renamed Kerry for this show. Schlatter proved to be an excellent choice – a lithe dancer who expertly leads the ensemble through the opening numbers.
The seventeen finalists include a variety of personalities; each performer nailing their respective characters. Tyler Kristensen and Jenna Friedman are outstanding in their moment as Alan and Kristine, a married couple who go out for the ensemble despite the fact that the scatter-brained Kristine can’t sing. “Sing!” which they perform together, is a masterpiece of comic timing.
Many of the characters are conscious of their flaws; for Connie (Bree Lam), it’s her lack of height. For Val (Aurora Schnurr), it’s her too-slow developing body. The characters desperately want to get a part in this show, mostly because it’s a job, and most have given up any hope of making it as stars.
Although the cast is universally superlative, all have their stand-out moments. As tap-dancing specialist Mike, Gabe Rashba starts out with an excellent rendition of “I Can Do That.” Sami Staitman is charming and sweet as Maggie, who tells of her growing up in a broken home, in a trio (“At the Ballet”) that also includes a poised Julia Parry as Sheila, the hardened dancer who is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, and Jasmine Flora as Bebe, the insecure dancer who only feels beautiful when she performs.
Zach Finn exhibits great comedy skills as the outgoing Bobby, who jokes about his conservative upbringing. Finn’s brother Noah has one of the more remarkable scenes in the show as Paul, the introverted gay dancer with an identity crisis. His extended monolog, in which he talks movingly about getting a job as a drag queen, is one of the most poignant moments in the show, and Finn’s performance is superb.
Yael Karoly is wonderful as Diana, a streetwise Puerto Rican dancer who still aspires to stardom, and sings a glorious version of “What I Did for Love.”
Cassie is a skilled dancer who can’t act and whose career has been on the skids. complicated by the fact that she is also the former girlfriend of Zach, which causes an added bit of drama to the proceedings. As Cassie, Alley Kerr is sympathetic as the dancer who should be a star, but has trouble finding work and is now “reduced” to auditioning for ensemble roles in order to stay employed. Kerr is a fabulous dancer and her exquisite routine during “The Music and the Mirror” brought an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.
Aurora Schnurr brings sass and sexiness to her part as Val, the brazen, foul-mouthed dancer from Vermont. Matt Yulish exhibits a beautiful tenor voice and lanky dexterity as the likable, laid-back Richie. David Tobias is Don, the hedonist of the group, a cocky ladies man who values cars, money, and women above his art. Alec Mandell is Mark, the youngest dancer, naive but charming. Nick Singley plays Greg, a gay East Sider with attitude, while Maris Paden rounds out the cast as the awkward, quirky Judy.
In the end, the eight who make the final cut end up all looking the same, when they join the rest of the cast strutting to “One” in their sparkly golden chorus outfits. It’s the final irony, since we’ve spent the entire show getting to know these people as individuals.
In addition to Hunt’s fine direction and perfect casting, Melissa Staab and her assistant Casey Denning have done a magnificent job directing the choreography. Musical director Heidi Cissell did a splendid job directing the singing.
Oak Park High School’s A Chorus Line is a highly entertaining production of near-professional quality. If you get a chance to see it, there are only two performances left. See the VC On Stage Calendar for directions to the school.