'A Chorus Line' remains vibrant after 33 years


December 04, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

More than 33 years after it was first performed, and despite being entrenched in the music and mores of the 1970s, A Chorus Line remains a deeply satisfying theatrical experience.

The audience still has the pleasure of peering into the hearts of 16 strangers in the space of a little more than two hours. Their stories are surprising, touching and funny, and so quirky they could only be true.

For instance, the prepubescent boy who diagnoses his appendicitis from a medical textbook comes from the life of the original choreographer, Michael Bennett. The young girl pretending to be an Indian chief who longs to dance with her father in the family living room was based on remarks made by Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie.

This is one of those shows that is virtually performance-proof, and that turns out to be a bonus. In the national tour running at the Hippodrome Theatre, the actors playing Paul and Cassie lack the skill to pull off such demanding roles. The rest of the cast, though, raises the barre.

In 1974, Bennett sat down with a tape recorder and interviewed aspiring dancers about their lives. That meeting, which began at midnight, was part bull session and part group therapy, and provided the raw material for A Chorus Line's script and characters. Bennett later devised the framework of an audition presided over by a Svengali-like director named Zach. Tension results when Zach's former lover, Cassie, competes for one of the coveted parts.

It's not that the musical never seems dated. Some of the rock tunes and dance moves come from the era when disco was king. And when Cassie complains that Zach was obsessed with his career, I almost expected her to suggest that he turn on, tune in and drop out.

It's also intriguing that, more than three decades later, the most impressive technical aspect of this dance musical isn't the choreography but the score. A Chorus Line is bracketed by two show-stopping ensemble numbers: "I Hope I Get It" and "One." But many routines in the middle, including Cassie's famous solo, overly rely on head-tossing and fragmenting mirrors.

In contrast, several of Marvin Hamlisch's songs are so recognizable that listeners may be surprised to learn they originated in this show. There's the almost sinfully rhythmic "One," of course, but also the poignant "At the Ballet." And "What I Did For Love" isn't merely a popular song; it has become a catch phrase.

The most memorable performance is delivered by Gabrielle Ruiz as Diana. It helps that her character is handed two terrific songs: "Nothing" and the aforementioned "What I Did for Love." Ruiz has a pure and powerful voice and sings with an affecting simplicity. She also is a fine actress. At one point, Diana balks at one of Zach's orders and then believes her resistance may have cost her a role in his show. The actress lowers her eyes and bites her lip; her features are suffused with pain.

Mindy Dougherty has a chirpy, cheerleader vibe that softens her portrayal of Val, the brassy dancer who boasts, hilariously, in "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" that cosmetic surgery has resurrected her career and love life.

Some of the strongest dancers are the men. As Richie, a former athlete, Anthony Wayne seems to have grown two muscles for every one possessed by mortals, and each body part seems to move independently of the rest. Nearly as impressive is dancer Clyde Alves as Mike. A number called "I Can Do That" features a demanding tap routine, and Alves' feet magically move even faster than his mouth.

But the star in this group of hopefuls isn't supposed to be Val, Mike or Richie - it's supposed to be Cassie, who, we are told repeatedly, doesn't dance like anyone else. The audience is lead to expect that when this character lets loose, we will see something special.

But Robyn Hurder isn't especially limber, and her movements are neither swift nor crisply defined. Nor does she possess the charm, humor or personality that makes some performers unforgettable. At one point, Cassie tells Zach that when she went to California seeking her big break, she learned that she can dance but not act.

Perhaps Hurder possesses both talents - but they're not on display in this production.

Similarly, actor Kevin Santos overemphasizes his character's fragility. Granted, Paul, who was molested as a child, is a sensitive soul. But, while relating this sad story, Santos quivers so much that he's in danger of falling off the stage.

And yet the writing transcends occasional lapses in performance. Paul is gay, and he tells Zach that he quickly accepted his own sexual orientation. What was far more difficult, he says, was learning how to be a man.

That insight was so unexpected, yet so right, I found myself nodding in agreement. Even after 33 years, A Chorus Line remains a singular sensation.


A Chorus Line runs through Dec. 14 at the Hippodrome Theatre, France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m., Saturdays; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$65. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.

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