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Sunday, 12 June 2016

A Chorus Line: Needs Deeper Roots

Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Co-Choreographed by Bob Avian
Original Broadway production produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival, Joseph Papp, producer, in association with Plum Productions, Inc.
Director and Choreographer Donna Feore; Musical Director Laura Burton
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco, Michael Walton (lights), Peter McBoyle (sound)
Featuring Dana Tietzen, Cynthia Smithers, Matt Alfano

The following statement is tantamount to sacrilege in the theatre community: I think A Chorus Line may have passed its expiration date.

In the 1970’s the character’s life stories were poignant and shocking, but in 2016 they do not resonate with the same weight.  What is relevant – a dancer’s short professional life span and how hard it is to make it in the biz – certainly can be transmuted to 2016. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time dedicated to this theme, and so the “truth and integrity” of their 1970s lives seems almost self-indulgent. In 2016 we are just as concerned with truth, but the catch-phrase is “truth and accountability”.

Who should be held accountable for letting such an “iconic piece of theatre” go stale? Not the director, Donna Feore, who, by all accounts, had to do cartwheels for permission simply to adjust the choreography to suit a rounded stage. No, the truth and integrity of A Chorus Line is up to those owners who had her jumping through hoops. Within the text a character laments that “Broadway is dying”… which is ironic in a show that won’t leave behind references to Jill St. Who?  Anyone in the biz may feel a strong connection to this show, but modern audiences are not likely to feel an emotional tug at all beyond that of nostalgia.
Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
That. Being. Said.  The music and dancing in Ms. Feore’s production is first-rate. The orchestra led by Laura Burton is in high gear from the first note to the last, and the entire ensemble of dancers shimmy and shake their groove thing all over the bare stage – it must be hard for a for a bunch of top-notch dancers to purposely fall behind a beat or out of sync, as some dancers must inevitably do in auditions. However, their choreography is, unfortunately, stuck in the 1970s, and by today’s hip-hop Hamiltonian standards (or even to those set in Ms. Feore’s own Crazy for You two years ago), the strutting comes off as oddly flat.

The actors’ singing is fair to excellent. Some sound problems the night I saw it may have been at fault, but several voices sounded shrill while others were overpowered by the orchestra. One exception is Cynthia Smithers who came closest to knocking it out of the park with both Nothing and What I Did for Love, set up rather beautifully by Dana Tietzen’s earlier duologue as Cassie.

Similarly, the acting is also fair to excellent. Accents came and went, and there was often little subtlety in performances; one of the Festival’s leaders in subtlety, Juan Chioran (Zach), is kept oddly separate from the rest of the cast, so all emotional connection to him is lost. The exception is Cassie; Ms. Tietzen manages, in both text and in dance, to convey both her character’s joy and desperation to keep her dream alive. Although the choreography doesn’t do her any favours, this above all sold the overarching message of the show – dancers do what they do for love.
Company of A Chorus Line. Photo by David Hou
A lovely message, to be sure, but for this reviewer it isn’t sufficient. The show just doesn’t have roots deep enough to create a powerful connection.

A Chorus Line continues until October 30 at the Festival Theatre.

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