“A Chorus Line"

By Brooks Appelbaum

Playhouse on Park has an intimate jewel of a black box theater and access to some impressive talent. Last season’s “Hair” used both to terrific advantage. Unfortunately, the artistic and producing directors’ choice of “A Chorus Line” to end this season critically strains the theater’s resources. A few performances stand out, but as directed by Sean Harris with Darlene Zoller as co-director and choreographer, the production generally lacks the pulsing energy, swift pacing, and sharply perfect technique that are crucial to its success.

Because it’s about breaking into a Broadway career, “A Chorus Line” is an especially difficult show to put over without sky-high professional production values in every respect. While all musicals need actors who are triple threats, other musicals’ plots compel us to think about the characters’ situations first, and later to marvel at the skill with which that story was told. However, since the story driving “A Chorus Line” is about a Broadway audition for members of a huge, 1930’s-musical-like chorus, and since the director, Zach (beautifully played by Eric S. Robertson) wants to know about each candidate’s life -- told through monologues, dances, and songs -- we never forget that these characters are Broadway material. So, with “every little step,” to quote the show’s iconic song, “One,” the actors and the show itself have to convince us they are.

At Playhouse on Park, the venue helps, at least until the final big number. By using the black box space as a rehearsal room where we see the dancers warming up before the show (and their audition) begins, the directors have drawn us into the action. From the first beat of the first number, though, we sense that something is off. “A Chorus Line” requires a full orchestra (its gorgeous music is, famously, by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Edward Kleban), and though the eight-piece band, led by Mike Moris, does fine work, it cannot possibly create the kind of sound the show needs.

In terms of pacing, the same is true of the actors in their big numbers, such as what should be the electrifying “God I Hope I Get It”; “Hello Twelve”; and “One.” Only the very best of the best could possibly perform choreography inspired by Michael Bennett’s original work with the kind of precision that would do it full justice.

Smaller numbers and individual songs fare much better. Especially noteworthy are Tracy Mellon, Sarah Kozlow, and Kayla Starr Bryan in a lovely rendition of “At the Ballet.” Ronnie Bowman, Jr., as Richie, could step directly from here to the Broadway stage, and I hope he does. Rina Maejima, as Connie, has a beautiful voice, both speaking and singing, and a winning stage presence. And Tino Ardiente, in a key role as Paul, delivers his poignant monologue with damaged dignity, understatement, and heart.

The script’s central drama, beyond the audition itself, involves Zach and one of the auditioners, Cassie, who has been out of work for too long and longs to be given a chance to begin again, back in the chorus. Their past together complicates their present, and Cassie’s passionate song and extensive dance number, “The Music and the Mirror,” are by far the most demanding in the show. Michelle Pruiett plays Cassie, but due to Pruiett’s serious illness, I saw her understudy, Anna Marie Russell. Russell is a strong actor and she won me to her side, but she is not a good choice for Cassie. That problem lies at the feet of the director.

I hope that in the future Playhouse on Park will be more realistic about its strengths and limitations. Much of the genius in “A Chorus Line’s” lies in the telling of so many life stories in miniature, through song and dance. That fact in itself demonstrates how this lovely theater could do smaller shows beautifully.

Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through July 31. For tickets, contact www.playhouseonpark.org or call (860) 523-5900 x10.

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