Obviously, casting is important for any show – cast the wrong actor in a role and it can let the air out of one of the show’s tires. However, there are some shows that have become so iconic, and the characters so imbedded in the public’s mind, that casting it correctly is almost a death-defying, high-wire act (to switch metaphors) – one false move and the show plummets. Of course, you can cast against type, but that often draws more attention to the casting choice than to the production itself. Correct casting is never more important than when deciding to board “A Chorus Line,” the backstage show-biz musical that opened on Broadway in 1975 and is currently on the stage at the Ivoryton Playhouse. I am happy to report that Jacqueline Hubbard, the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, and Todd L. Underwood, the show’s director, along with Michael Morris, musical director, walked the tightrope with nary a false step, for the cast, across the board, is outstanding, and the show is one, whether you’ve seen other productions or not, that should not be missed.
The reason why casting is so critical for this musical, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleband and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, is that although it’s essentially an ensemble cast the show consists of a series of vignettes, some delivered via song and others via monologues, that literally puts the spotlight on individual actors. As they step forward to tell their characters’ stories, each has the opportunity to create a unique moment, and by and large they all succeed.
The show’s gestation involved several workshop sessions with Broadway dancers, called “gypsies” because they have no permanent “home” — they travel from show to show wherever the work takes them. Michael Bennet, the show’s original choreographer, sat in on these sessions and, although there is contention about exactly who came up with the idea, Bennet realized that what the dancers were telling him, their stories, was grist for the theatrical mill. Hence, “A Chorus Line” was born.
The show, save for the finale, is about the arduous, sometimes degrading, always stressful audition process, and opens on a bare stage lit primarily by a “ghost” light, a single light on a pole that is kept lit in most theaters, ostensibly to allow people to see where they’re going when the stage in unlit but, if you buy into theater lore and superstition, is really to keep theatrical ghosts at bay. It’s a bare-bones scenic design (compliments of Martin Scott Marchitto), save for mirrors that often line a rehearsal studio (actually they look like they’re made of mylar and make the dancers look like they’re dancing in a fun-house, but whatever) and a “rain” curtain in the final scene; the lack of scenery and props emphasizes that it’s all on the actors to provide the gloss, glitter and atmosphere.
In the musical, the show being cast requires four male and four female dancers, but three times as many dancers are auditioning, so there’s the inevitable winnowing process. The show’s director, Zach (Edward Stanley), is overseeing the process with the assistance of his choreographer, Larry (Max Weinstein), and after putting the dancers through an initial routine and making some cuts, Zach has those remaining literally toe the line and then requests that they speak about themselves, which sets up most of the production, for they all step forward, either individually or in groups, to tell their stories.
I’ve seen this show multiple times – know the characters, know their stories – so there was a possibility that my overall reaction might be, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Such was not the case. The stories, whether told via song or monologue, are still compelling and delivered with such conviction that one is compelled to attend and respond. My one somewhat negative reaction, and this is not the fault of this production, is the length of the opening sequence, which has the full company running through several dance routines, while occasionally breaking out with the “I Hope I Get It” song, punctuated by “I Really Need This Job” – it just seems to run on a bit too long. Since we have yet to be introduced to the individual characters, it seems, at moments, a simple flurry of dancing bodies.
However, once the cuts are made and Zach makes his request for self-revelation, the show begins to soar and never flags. As mentioned, this is an ensemble piece, but there are standouts. The first of them is Natalie Madison as Diana Morales. Her story involves her experience in a high school acting class in which she is constantly belittled. This is rendered via “Nothing,” and her haunting voice carries with it the sense of the demeaning nature of her experience. You can’t help but edge a bit forward in your seat as her story unfolds until it gets to the poignant final moment when she feels “nothing” upon hearing that her former teacher had passed away. Madison also gets to sing one of the show’s signature songs, “What I Did For Love,” which she does in such a heartfelt manner it’s like you’re hearing this song for the first time.
Another first among equals is Alexa Racioippi as Val, who delivers the best “tits and ass” sequence (“Dance: Ten: Looks: Three”) I’ve ever seen. She flaunts what the plastic surgeon has given her without shame – it’s sassy and stylish and basically demands that the audience acknowledge the essence of what the song is about. At one point Val turns to the audience and says, “You’re looking at my tits, aren’t you?” (this after a little hop-hop turn that makes her breasts jiggle and bounce). Yes, we are. Gotcha!
I could go on: there’s the opening story delivered by Mike (Dakota Hoar), the “I Can Do That” song, that brings to mind the “Billy Eliot” story. Then there’s the entire Montage sequence, which includes the touching “At the Ballet” number featuring Bebe (Kayla Starr Bryan), Maggie (Liv Kurtz) and Sheila (Lili Thomas), which offers a view of dancing school as a retreat for these three young women from the stark and somewhat painful realities of their home lives. The number also emphasizes how Marcus Abbot’s lighting design is so integral to this production. There have been times in the past when the Ivoryton lighting, at least in early days of a show, has been a bit shaky (especially with follow spots), but in “Chorus Line” it is flawless – it draws the audience’s attention to what they should be looking at without drawing attention to itself.
As for stark and painful realities, nothing tops the story Paul (Joey Lucherini) tells late in the second act. Reluctant to speak throughout most of the audition, he finally unburdens himself, relating how he came out of the closet and ended up in a drag show, only to have his parents confront him, when he is in full costume, back stage. Although the telling could have been sped up a bit, in the end it’s a story that can’t help but make the emotions twitch just a bit.
All of this leads to the final number, “One,” and although it’s been expected (and anticipated) by all who are familiar with the show, it still delivers a certain amount of elation and triumph for, unlike in the opening sequence, the audience now knows who these dancers are, their trials and tribulations, and although the show they have been cast in will inevitably close and they will move on (reality, too, for the actors up on the stage), for this one, brief, shining moment they have achieved success.
Ivoryton’s second summer musical is a crowd-pleasing winner. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the show before (especially if you’re only familiar with the agonizingly flawed, over-produced film version) or are new to the world of the “gypsies.” This is the type of show where you just might resent there being an intermission because you want to get back to your seat and see and hear more, if only because there’s so much talent up there on the stage. You might well ask yourself, “Am I in Ivoryton or on Broadway?”
“A Chorus Line” runs through September 2. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.