A Chorus Line now at WBT

Published: Monday, March 5, 2018 By: Ed Lieberman Source: TheaterScene.net

For its 208th production, WBT is presenting one of the most celebrated shows of the Broadway canon: A Chorus Line, the ode to those unsung actors without whom no musical could survive: the gypsies.

A Chorus Line opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in April 1975 and quickly moved uptown, where it ran for 6,137 performances, finally closing in April 1990. At that time it held the record as the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score, Book, and Direction and Choreography, among others (the latter two by the immortal Michael Bennett), and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The show is structured as a behind-the-scenes look at an audition for the chorus of a Broadway show. It opens with the choreographer, Zach, and his assistant, Larry, running 17 dancers through some of the steps that they will be expected to perform. They advise the dancers that just eight dancers will be chosen for the show. In an effort to come to a decision as to which dancers are to be chosen, Zach, who is offstage for most of the show, asks the dancers to “talk about yourselves. What made you start dancing?” The dancers at first balk at exposing themselves, but in view of their need for work (“I Really Need This Job”), most of them become more forthcoming, describing their personal insecurities and heartbreaking tales of bullying, misogyny, homophobia and ethnic and sexual stereotypes. Many stories are told by various characters in song -- even one about not being able to sing (“Sing”). For example, Mike recalls his first experience with dance when he, as a preschooler and the youngest of 12 children, was forced to go along to watch his older sister’s ballet class and realized that “I Can Do That.” Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie used ballet as an escape from unhappy family situations, noting “[Everyone’s pretty] at the Ballet”) and describe their parents in not-so-positive terms (“Mother”). Several of the dancers share memories of their adolescence (“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love”). Others describe their physical and talent shortcomings, lamenting short stature (Connie: “I was happy at 10, when everyone was my size”); Kristine describes her tone deafness (“Sing”), and Val admits  to having had plastic surgery, because talent alone doesn’t guaranty success (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”).

 

The one character who -- involuntarily -- stands out in the show is Cassie, a former chorus girl who’d had a relationship with Zach, graduated to solo parts and moved to California in an unsuccessful attempt to further her career. Zach has Cassie remain onstage while Larry takes the other dancers downstairs (offstage) to learn the steps, and tells her that she doesn’t belong there because she’s too good; that this would be a step backward for her. Her heartbreaking and forceful response is that she had not been successful finding solo work; that she was told that she “can’t act;” and that she now wants to come home to the chorus, where she can express her passion for dance (“The Music and the Mirror”). As for this being a step backward, Cassie says not at all; yes, she’s good, but they’re all good; they’re all special; that she would feel privileged to dance with them. At that moment one has to feel great pain for Cassie, who has tasted success but is now so desperate for a job that she finds herself auditioning for her ex-boyfriend. Zach relents and lets Cassie proceed with the audition. He then calls back Paul, who’d hesitated earlier when asked about his background. Paul tells him of having come to terms with his homosexuality and recounts how his parents reacted after seeing him in a drag revue. Paul breaks down and Zach comes down from his offstage refuge to comfort him.

Zach then calls the dancers back for the final winnowing process. As the dancers are going through the steps, however, Paul falls and injures his surgically repaired knee, and is taken off to the hospital. The other dancers are shocked and suddenly realize -- if they didn’t know before – how fragile and precarious their lives in dance are. Zach asks the remaining dancers what they will do when they can no longer dance. The dancers recall the sacrifices they have made to engage in their passion for dance (i.e. “I’d get off my diet”), and Diana leads them in one of the more memorable songs in the show, “What I Did For Love.” In this case, the love is for dancing and the theater. It is only in the final moments that the dancers come out in costume and show us the final product of all their work (“One”).

As one can tell from this summary, this is not your mother’s “musical comedy.” It is an intense and bittersweet tribute to dancers and their precarious hold on the life they love. See this show and you will never again view a musical in the same way. You will come away with an appreciation for and understanding of those who sacrifice their lives and talent for what most “civilians” would consider thankless rewards: a largely anonymous career. Very few, if any, theatergoers can name members of a chorus. Indeed, if a dancer stands out, (s)he is not doing their job, which is to blend into a seamless whole (encapsulated in the final song-and-dance number, “One”). That is the reason for the show’s examination of the relationship between Cassie and Zach, and Zach’s concern that Cassie is “too good” to be in the chorus: her virtuosity will make her stand out above her fellow gypsies, and call attention to herself (and therefore away from the actors playing the leading roles). It is a discovery well worth making.   

It is in this section of the review that a critic is called upon to mention the actors and actresses and their roles. But to do so in reviewing this show, one would be doing a disservice to the concept and ideal of having them all blend into the background! Indeed, as mentioned, one of the leads, Zach, (played by David Elder), spends most of the show off-stage. That said, one can mention that the cast put together by WBT does justice to the concept. The one role that is called upon to stand out is Cassie, played by Erica Mansfield, whose performance marks a return to the place where her career began, WBT. Like Cassie, it is clear that Ms. Mansfield’s talents cry out for more featured parts than those in the chorus. Her performance does credit to those who have preceded her in the role, such as Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie, who won Best Actress in a Musical for her performance. Other standouts included Michael John Hughes, who played the emotionally trying role of Paul, Ashley Klinger, who has to deliberately sing off key as the tone-deaf Kristine, and Emma Degerstedt, as the chorine showing off her new voluptuousness. Please don’t think that not mentioning the other actors in some way demeans them; as Cassie said, they are all outstanding, and too numerous to mention all in this space.

The show is ably helmed by Director/Choreographer Mark Martino, who performed similar functions in WBT’s recent hit, Mamma Mia! Mr. Martino restages the direction and choreography of the late, great Michael Bennett, one of the creators of the show. In doing so, he is ably assisted by associate choreographer Brian Dillon, who also plays the assistant choreographer Larry in the cast. Musical Director Bob Bray, who recently backed Bette Midler in Hello Dolly, presents the musical score by Marvin Hamlish, with lyrics by Edward Kleban. Lighting, by WBT regular Andrew Gmoser is wonderful, allowing the cast members to briefly stand out from the rest during their solo numbers. 

In sum, this is a superb presentation of a major American musical; one that will change the way you view and appreciate future shows.