Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at The Ruth Page Center for the Arts,
1016 N. Dearborn St.
When: through May 31
By ANNE SPISELMAN
A Chorus Line” really was a “singular sensation” when it premiered in 1975. Developed in workshops with Broadway dancers taped by Michael Bennett, the director and co-choreographer, the musical with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban ran for 15 years on Broadway and racked up nine Tony Awards, as well as the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show was ground-breaking because it gave voice to the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of performers who are seldom, if ever, in the spotlight and made the audience see and appreciate them as individual human beings. Although short on plot, it had memorable songs that furthered the dancers’ Stories – “At the Ballet,” “Nothing,” “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” and “What I Did for Love,” among them – and enough dancing to demonstrate the enormous amount of work involved in auditioning and the resulting payoff.
Seeing “A Chorus Line” at Porchlight Music Theatre in 2019, I’m most struck by its ironies and how stuck it seems in time. That’s partly because director Brenda Didier and choreographer Christopher Chase Carter have stayed so close to the original—even the actors’ poses and costumes (by Robert S. Kuhn) are recognizable—and partly because the material itself no longer is new. In addition, I suspect that some of the then-familiar references, such as to Ann Miller and Maria Tallchief, will be mysteries to younger viewers.
The main irony, of course, is that the goal of Zach (Richard Strimer), who is conducting the auditions by asking the dancers to talk about themselves and their formative experiences, is to pick four “girls” and four “boys” who will fit virtually seamlessly, even anonymously, into a chorus line and function as “One,” even if the title of this finale refers to the star they will be backing up.
Less intentionally perhaps, with the passage of time, the idea of art mirroring life and visa-versa—the singer-dancers are playing real singer-dangers who are auditioning to be in a musical (eight of those recorded in the workshops actually were in the original cast) – has become a little ossified.
The problem is exacerbated by the rather generic quality of their accounts, especially of how and why they started dancing. Troubled childhoods, neglectful parents, early rejections, negative self-images, and coming to terms with their sexuality loom large, whether the issue is relatively light, such as Khristine’s (Chloé Nadon-Enriquez) inability to keep a tune, described in “Sing!” with the help of husband Al (Grant Carriker), or more serious like Diana Morales’ (Adrienne Velasco-Storrs) nasty teacher in “Nothing.”
The general arc of these accounts is chronological, from early childhood to what the dancers intend to do when they can no longer dance, but the two intermission-less hours include big chunks about Paul San Marco (Alejandro Fonseca) and Cassie Ferguson (Laura Savage). Paul, who elicits more than the usual amount of sympathy from Zach, recounts his history as a drag performer and how he came to admit his homosexuality to himself and his parents. Cassie, who has a history with her ex, Zach, hasn’t had much luck as the star he wanted her to be and desperately wants to return “home” to the chorus. He refuses to believe that’s where she belongs, and her big solo, “The Music and the Mirror,” doesn’t completely change his mind.
Both Fonseca and Savage, who reminds me a bit of Gloria Grahame, are excellent in their roles, though Cassie’s dance routine has always seemed too long. Here, despite her first-rate dancing, its power is diminished by the inadequate mirrors. Instead of being the usual three-sided affair that multiplies her image, Porchlight has a wall of panels covered in stretchy, shiny, more-or-less reflective, somewhat wrinkled polyester film that’s subpar in what is supposed to be a Broadway theater.
The other 15 “kids,” as Zach’s assistant Larry (Wade Tischhauser) calls them, are all very talented and display the incredible energy and stamina required for this show. A few are making their professional debuts and/or appearing at Porchlight for the first time, and in a “what if” moment I wondered what it would be like if they were telling their own stories rather than those of dancers trying to make it long before most of them were born. With a couple of exceptions, they were clearly playing characters rather than being convincing as the people they were supposed to be.
While the intimacy of the Ruth Page theater conveys certain benefits, the cast looked cramped lined up across the stage. The costumes for the finale were so glittery, they were tacky, and the hats looked like leprechauns should be wearing them on Halloween.
Of the other technical shortcomings, the most annoying was the muddy sound—at least where I was sitting near a speaker. Nonetheless, I haven’t seen “A Chorus Line” in a long time and was pleased to make its re-acquaintance, if only as a reminder of how things once were and how much they have changed.