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Arts and Entertainment

A Chorus Line @ Ahmanson Theatre

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A Chorus Line | Photo by Paul Kolnik

First brought to the boards of Broadway in 1975, Michael Bennett's stark, blunt, and brilliant musical about being in musicals became one of the longest-running musicals of all-time. Now in revival after over a decade's absence on the Great White Way, the national touring company of A Chorus Line has landed in LA's Ahmanson Theatre for a limited engagement.

Considering that Line is wholly emblematic of the time in which it was created and first produced, one major concern for a contemporary production would be what changes, if any, could and should be made to the show. Because the characters make frequent commentary on not only the bleak state of Broadway in the mid-1970s but also to the pop culture of the time and in their past, anyone currently mounting a production must carefully consider whether they wish to wholly modernize the context or leave the show as-is and let it stand as a more historical piece created simply out of the course of time passing.

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For this production the script remained almost entirely unchanged--sure, it's a risk that those watching might hear one character rhapsodize: "Robert Goulet, Robert Goulet, my God, Robert Goulet!" and wonder who the hell Robert Goulet was--which demonstrates a healthy respect for the integrity of the piece. However, in an early segment when the auditionees are asked to give their name and ages, the script was modified to only give ages in years, never a year of birth, which seems an odd choice; if we know a character is 25 in 1975, why can't they say they were born in 1950? This of course is in addition to the fact that since 1975 many in the audience may wonder why the heck this audition for nameless, faceless background hoofers is an extended exercise in navel gazing and pontification, but the fact remains that it is, and those willing to suspend the disbelief for the two hours (no intermission) might find themselves grateful that the show--and the premise of the show--buck tradition.

Ultimately the show is about individuals--ah, blessed irony!--and despite the fact that they are reduced to numbers and 8x10 glossy headshots, this untraditional setup invites us inside their varied (and, in some cases, like the reluctant Paul, predictable) lives.

Although many of the characters fall into a "type" it is still enjoyable to go along for the ride and to meet each one. Perhaps one of the most clearly defined type is the smart-mouthed "older woman" character, Sheila, played by Emily Fletcher, who played the role in the Broadway revival. Her acerbic wit and the wisdom of her age never fails to add levity to the brutality of the situation the auditonees find themselves in. It's hard to go wrong with her bitchy, been-there-done-that lines. Sheila is brilliant and touching--despite the nails-hard defensive shell she wears--in her song "At the Ballet" although the Fletcher's enunciation was a bit weak and some of the words were a bit lost. Her gift is clearly in her ability to communicate small things on a large scale so that just the slightest eye roll or adjustment of smile plays all the way to the back row and puts an exclamation point on her latest zinger.

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Unfortunately, the two weakest points of the show were the two who are considered the main characters in a show that is focused on the unsung heroes of the ensemble: Zach, the director, and Cassie, the fallen star. Although it is inherently within the scope of Zach to be self-absorbed, domineering, and very show-bizzy, Michael Gruber's delivery was a bit too caricaturesque, giving off the air of someone "acting very stagey." Because his sincerity and his ability to have emotions beyond his work is called into question, it is possible to justify the unbelievability of his more tender and reflective moments, from when he demands of Cassie an explanation of why she abandoned their romance to when he asks the hopefuls what they would do if their livelihood was taken away from them.

Unfortunately, though, that unbelievability translated as being on the actor's--and not the character's--part. Nikki Snelson as Cassie was another disappointment (granted, who can fill the might shoes of the part's originator, Donna McKechnie, and her many worthy successors?). In what is meant to be the show-stopping solo dance Snelson made it look hard, not effortless. The demands of the routine, legendary for its use of flying mirrors and changes of mood and tempo, were evident, despite her obvious gifts as a dancer, and her vocals lacked depth in some segments.

Perhaps this is why when, back in the chorus line, Zach's repeated admonishing of Cassie was read by the audience as a comedy routine, and not the cruel, emotion-charged expression of hurt and frustration the story calls for. With his constant barking of orders for her to blend in more and restrain herself the audience laughed instead of winced. Had we perhaps felt more connected to one or both it's possible the power of that scene would not have been diminished.

The brightest spot in the two-hour show was without a doubt Natalie Hall, who plays silliconed-sexpot Val. In a part that is so easily overdone or camp Hall brings a refreshing delivery of some very funny lines and genius mugging and execution of small bits that allows her to put her very unique stamp on what might otherwise be a very cookie cutter role.

Each of the other characters have their moment to sing and dance their way into their director's heart, although not all seem to be the right fit for the show-within-a-show, let alone the show itself. The skill level of the dancing was impressive, although the audience's frequent mid-number bursts of applause perhaps a bit too enthusiastic. Anthony Wayne is charming as Richie, and Stephanie Gibson makes the dingbat Judy more tolerable than anticipated, but Gabrielle Ruiz as Diana was a let down, mainly because she is meant to bring the house down with her ballad "What I Did For Love" (why Diana does this has always evaded this life-long Chorus Line fine) and she simply does not. Ruiz is capable, but not remarkable, and in fact might make you uncomfortable with her oddly timed and ceaseless shifting of her weight from foot to foot and "oooh, girl, I'm from the BRONX!" ghetto princess attitude.

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"One" is the familiar finale number of A Chorus Line | Photo by Paul Kolnik

What A Chorus Line does so deftly is to play out the ultimate ironies of the theatrical world. Here we see the beautiful and painful lives of individuals who are committed to lives of being anonymous, despite knowing they must question themselves for making that very commitment: "Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume?" they sing. And so in this unusual audition they become real people, dissected and displayed, and then, despite all the efforts to the contrary, they step back to the line and await the naming of who will be the show's "4 and 4"--that's 4 boys, 4 girls. They are hired not for who they are, but for how they blend seamlessly together, how their heights and skills match up, and how good they look as a group. They are prized for being nobody special, and then are asked to sing a song in tribute to an individual lauded for being extremely special in the finale number "One." No matter how much we know about them, by design they simply are not--cannot--be special. It even takes someone who tried to be special, Cassie, to tell us that at the end of the day, it's more important to her to be herself, even if it means being part of the crowd.

To revive A Chorus Line some thirty years later is a bold move, not only because it is so emblematic of its time, but also because it hasn't been long since it was last on stage. But this national company takes a bold move and makes it sing--and makes it dance--with rousing success. This show is thoroughly engaging--so long as you abandon your "this would never happen!" mantra and indulge in the make-believe inherent to the American musical theatre.

In a time when most of the population goes gaga over showbiz song and dance television, a la "So You Think You Can Dance" and "American Idol," A Chorus Line seems to answer its own question about the state of singing and dancing in the world we live in: We like it, and, what's more, we may well need it. There is hope for the hopeful characters, no matter how bleak the state of the world. And, ultimately, the show is timeless in that it is about hopes and dreams and fears and failures--things we all experience no matter if we dream of becoming famous dancers or doctors.

A Chorus Line
Ahmanson Theatre
135 N Grand Ave (The Music Center)
Now through July 6
Tickets

Photo of Snelson and Gruber as Cassie and Zach by Paul Kolnik