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A Chorus Line
By Michael Bennett, James Kirkwood Jr., Nicholas Dante, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban; directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Until Oct. 30 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford. stratfordfestival.ca and 1-800-567-1600
The opening moments of Michael Bennett’s meta-musical drop us into the middle of an audition for the chorus of a fictional 1970s Broadway show. Some 26 hoofers have learned a sequence and the dance captain Larry (Stephen Cota) is leading them in a run-through, as the director Zach (Juan Chioran) moves around and through the group, always controlling, always judging. There’s a bit of disarray initially: not everyone (in the show’s fiction) has the moves down perfectly.
But when the command is “Let’s take it from the top” and the fanfare plays, they become an ensemble, leaping, kicking and pirouetting in unison, blasting the audience with talent that is all the more powerful because it’s collective.
It’s also powerful because it’s happening in three dimensions: the production is a triumphant validation of choreographer/director Donna Feore’s belief that this material — reconceived and re-choreographed here for the first time in the 41 years since its off-Broadway premiere — would thrive in Stratford’s Festival Theatre, where the audience surrounds the action on three sides.
Throughout, this allows her to integrate moves involving depth — the whole company revolving in a circle or creating Busby Berkeley-like wheel-and-spoke shapes — and it adds to the power of this first number because the staggered rows of dancers help create the impression of a multitude (further enhanced by the revolving mirrors at the back of Michael Gianfrancesco’s set).
Singing and dancing overlap in this first number, “I Hope I Get It.” While Edward Kleban’s lyrics have never been noted for their complexity (“I’ve come this far but even so/it could be yes, it could be no . . . ”) this introduces a central conceit: that we’re going into the heads and spirits of these hopefuls as well as admiring their technical prowess and charisma.
This is facilitated through the device of Zach-as-God/father figure: after the first number he walks to a table in the back of the theatre (a lovely mini-installation of period-specific detail, down to an ashtray of cigarette butts) and spends nearly all of the two-hour show unseen, speaking over a microphone.
It’s here that the material shows its age, as well as its somewhat grubby psychosexual underbelly. To our contemporary sensibilities, Zach’s methods — asking (sometimes haranguing) these job seekers to talk about their pasts and desires — come across as at least manipulative, if not a little creepy. The material, which writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante assembled in part from the testimonies of real-life Broadway dancers, tends to dwell on stories of unhappy families and adolescent non-belonging, from which dancing became a refuge.
At the time this was celebrated for exposing what lies underneath the glitz and glam of Broadway. Today it comes across as a typical expression of the “me” generation, containing an internal paradox that’s never quite resolved.
The show highlights the tension between the individual and the ensemble: many of these artists desperately need the work to sustain themselves materially and only eight of them will get the job. What results from this only-the-strong-survive scenario is a perfectly synchronized chorus line that effaces their individuality, as triumphantly demonstrated in the closing number “One Singular Sensation” (they’re singing about the unseen star they’ll support but also implicitly about the working unit they become). That they’re just potential cogs in the wheel makes Zach’s mining of this personal material seem all the more exploitative, but it’s also that device that provides the show with its substance in the form of a series of numbers in which dancers tell their stories.
The standout amongst these is “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” in which the previously plain Val (Julia McLellan) vivaciously recounts how she improved her career and sexual prospects by buying herself “tits and ass” from a plastic surgeon. In a brilliantly self-aware performance McLellan delivers this sexist material while commenting ironically on it: she sees the patriarchy for what it is and is beating it at its own game. McLellan is (pardon the expression) the full package: a great singer, dancer and actor who justly earned the biggest cheer from the opening-night crowd.
Several other performers show off triple-threat qualities and shine. As Diana Morales, Cynthia Smithers’ delivery of “Nothing” is filled with convincing introspection; Ayrin Mackie lands every one of the cynical sex-bomb Sheila’s hilarious lines; and as Mark, Colton Curtis’s account of his teenage confusions is totally winning.
The midshow montage of adolescent anxieties is enduring evidence of Bennett’s genius: an audacious collage of at least 20 minutes of material that makes no attempt at psychological or narrative naturalism but rather layers on anecdote, dance and song to deep emotional effect. Feore’s choreography and direction here are superb, as are Laura Burton’s musical direction and Peter McBoyle’s sound design: the balance between the superb 17-piece orchestra and the singers is always right on target.
The production founders somewhat in the pivotal number “The Music and the Mirror” because Dayna Tietzen’s dancing and acting are not as strong as her excellent singing voice, which undermines the credibility of the conceit that she’s a star dancer trying to blend into the chorus. The subplot about her and Zach’s unfinished romantic business was never the show’s most convincing aspect, and Chioran and Tietzen play too much into, rather than pushing against, its melodrama. This problem extends in the sequence in which Zach asks the dancers what they’d do if they couldn’t dance and they reply, unconvincingly, that it was “What I Did for Love” (as opposed to, say, a paycheque?). Marvin Hamlisch’s underscoring of the spoken sequences at this point adds to the schmaltz factor.
There is a brutality and darkness underlying this material that a more critically focused production could bring out (we see welcome hints of it in Tietzen’s pained grimaces at the end of “Music and the Mirror”), but Feore’s approach overall is to go with the material’s sentimental flow. More could be made, for example, of the nearly mechanized appearance of the dancers in Gianfrancesco’s metallic and spangly champagne-coloured final costumes (which closely model those of the original production) as they glint under Michael Walton’s lights.
More reverent than revisionist, then, but there is much that is thrilling about this production, not least the knowledge that with it Feore and Stratford have liberated the material from the restrictions of the protective Bennett estate, paving the way for future innovations. For that they deserve nothing but the highest praise.