Michael Bennett’s Timeless Musical “A Chorus Line” Hits Seattle

Posted on September 17, 2014, 4:13 pm
7 mins

A Chorus Line is as authentic and moving now as it was at its Public Theatre premiere in 1975. 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2014 revival of this giant in the musical theatre canon does not disappoint.

Based on the book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and documentary recordings by Michael Bennett, the concept of A Chorus Line was a novel one—an unedited, thoroughly vulnerable peek into the lives of the dancers of Broadway and off-Broadway, and, most importantly, the lives of those who would never reach these hallowed venues as they audition for a new production on Broadway.

To a modern viewer this hardly feels unusual; our television screens are saturated with every possible talent competition imaginable where filmed ‘real depictions’ of the creative process is often punctuated by intimate accounts of contestants’ personal lives. For the audience at the 1975 premiere however, this was certainly not the case. The first hit feature in the ‘reality television’ genre, Craig Gilbert’s An American Family had aired only a few months before the musical’s premiere. A Chorus Line humanized the stereotypes of ‘those showbiz people’ to the broader 1970s audience and they were riveted as a result. The musical quickly went on to win several awards, including nine Tony awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The themes in A Chorus Line feel as current today as it did then—simultaneously a testament to its visionary creators, and a searing critique of the slow rate of social change over the past four decades. Audiences are moved to this day by the back-stories of a few dozen mostly unknown actors and dancers, which were recorded by Bennett during two all-nighter sessions. Accounts of the awkwardness of growing up when being labeled ‘different’ by mainstream society, the embarrassing and often traumatic experiences of adolescence, and the all-too-familiar pressure to succeed at any cost are central themes throughout the show.

The musical evolved through an extensive workshop process at the New York Shakespeare Festival in that same year that the recordings were made. Bennett also choreographed, with music composed by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of A Chorus Line is largely successful in combining the key ingredients of this demanding musical: show-stopping musical numbers requiring vocal mastery and flexibility, tight choreography and an authentic depiction of the frantic and desperate lives of dancers auditioning for their big break…or in some cases, a final opportunity to dance on stage.

The cast at the press opening, hailing largely from Seattle, adequately navigated these challenges while contributing their own unique interpretations and charms to the long-running show. Standout performances include the charming Gabriel Corey as Mike with the lively “I Can Do That,” Trina Mills, Taylor Niemeyer and Sarah Rose Davis in the vulnerable “At the Ballet,” and Stephen Diaz’s “Paul monologue” (based on Nicholas Dante’s own disclosure of his first performances in drag, and a particularly heart-wrenching moment when his parents accidentally saw him performing in drag for the first time) which left barely a dry eye in the house.

Taryn Darr delivered the performance of the night as Val in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” effortlessly combining the naiveté, vulnerability and sass required of the role. Her singing, acting and comedic timing could not be faulted and had the audience rolling with laughter. She will be replaced by Meaghan Foy as of September 14.

Chryssie Whitehead as Cassie in The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of A Chorus Line.   Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Chryssie Whitehead as Cassie in The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of A Chorus Line. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

While the taxing choreography of the almost 4-minute long “The Music and the Mirror” did prove a challenge in a few spots, Chryssie Whitehead delivered a moving portrayal of aging dancer Cassie. This is understandable, as the role was originally created specifically for Donna McKechnie whose effortless, unique dancing style and notable acting (for which she won the 1976 Tony) has been a challenge to recreate for several successive Cassies, even an esteemed Broadway dancer/actor such as Whitehead. (Whitehead previously played Kristine in the 2006 Broadway revival, as documented in the documentary Every Single Step.)

The vocal flexibility of “What I Did for Love,” alternating between belting and a lighter head voice, similarly proved a bit too much for Katrina Asmar as Diana. The vocalism of the cast in general displayed several issues, especially in the link between registers. The ensemble work was nonetheless exemplary in group numbers such as “I Hope I Get It”, “Mother” and the show’s most instantly recognizable tune “One.” The orchestra played splendidly under the capable direction of W. Brent Sawyer.

Despite its charm, the evening was rife with overacting. Throughout the musical the choreographer Zach, played by Andrew Palermo, encourages the cast to stop ‘performing’ and to simply share their stories during the grueling interview portion of the audition process, advice that may well serve the Seattle production’s cast. One was left with the feeling that some in the cast were portraying caricatures rather than characters.

Audiences nonetheless are guaranteed a delightful evening, with incessantly catchy tunes, solid dancing and stirring portrayal of those stirring autobiographical accounts, captured for posterity by Michael Bennett all those years ago. During the musical one of the auditionees exclaims: “Nothing runs forever, right?” As 5th Avenue’s production indicates, A Chorus Line, one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, might well disprove this statement for many decades to come.

5th Avenue Theatre’s A Chorus Line

When: September 3 – 28, 2014:00 PM

Where: 5th Avenue Theatre

Tickets available online at the 5th Avenue Theatre Web site.

Johann Van Niekerk is a writer, conductor and collaborative artist based in Seattle, WA. He holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington where his research focused on the role that music has played throughout history in effecting social change. Van Niekerk covers performing arts events in and around Seattle.

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