Under the Stars: A Chorus Line at Danbury’s Richter Park

David Begelman

After it opened at the Public Theater in 1975, A Chorus Line went on to run for over six thousand performances, making it the longest running Broadway production up to that point in time. It was eventually overtaken by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera, neither of which in this reviewer’s opinion match the quality of the show created by Michael Bennett, with music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban.

A Chorus Line, unlike the other two musicals, tugs mightily at the heartstrings. An ode to what struggling performers have to face in order to get cast, it is a happy combination of music, lyrics, and story line. Above all, it is a celebration of Broadway dancers who put their souls on the line through movement on stage.

In exploring how real, and often bruised, personalities lurk underneath the glamorous exterior of dance, A Chorus Line attempts to give voice to the personal dramas of the performers involved. Its leading female character, Cassie (played by Kristin M. Ruggieri), in her number “The Music And The Mirror” implores the choreographer, Zach (played by Kevin Cooper), to cast her in his chorus line.  She pleads, “A dancer dances.” She is, of course, only half right. A dancer also experiences disappointment in the pursuit of a career that has its tumultuous share of ups and downs. The unemployed Cassie is herself a living illustration of this.

Other characters in A Chorus Line confirm the dark reality. Sheila (played by Sarah Lee Michaels, along with Caitlin Keeler and Bridget Krompinger as Bebe and Maggie) in their number, “At The Ballet” muse about how dancing has brightened their lives. Sheila, in particular, sings about how the beauty of ballet shielded her from the sordid dynamics of her dysfunctional family.

Bobby (played by Nathan Mandracchia) hides the unhappiness of his home life by making jokes. Maggie feels that unlike the father she never had, someone was always there for her at the ballet. Bebe felt more beautiful dancing than she imagined she actually was, while Greg (played by Stephen Michelsson) and Paul (played by Chris DeMarchis) describe crises coming to terms with their homosexuality. All performers share memories of their transition to adolescence in the group number, “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” The recitations may be somber, but audience identification with the characters is immediate and compelling.

The character of Zach, the choreographer, was obviously Michael Bennett’s vehicle for getting dancers to tell their life stories while auditioning. He is nonetheless a personality in his own right. If his aim is to cast 8 out of the 17 dancers left from the first cut for just a chorus line—and one in a touring company, not a Broadway show, at that—why the necessity for endless probing into their personalities and quirks? We can draw two conclusions here: a George Balanchine type he’s not, since he’s preoccupied with more than dancing alone, while a voyeur he may very well be. All you need to know about dancers in a chorus line is how well they move on stage, not the revelations you uncover about their personal lives. (Michael Douglas’s intense portrayal in the film adaptation of the show underscored Zach’s driving intrusiveness, not to mention other of his obnoxious traits.)

A Chorus Line is an enormously popular musical in area theaters around the country. But mounting an effective production is fraught with pitfalls. The casting requires due consideration of triple-threat capabilities (singing, acting, dancing), with an emphasis on the last of these talents. Director Gene Bayliss’s choice of performers in this regard was unfortunately not up to the requirements of this show. His performers exhibited a wide range of capabilities for which dancing was not a prominent asset.

On the other hand, several performances in other areas of talent were noteworthy. The most satisfying portrayal was by Jessica H. Smith in the role of Diana Morales, a dancer who, in her number, “Nothing” describes her failure as a student of Method acting at the High School of Performing Arts. The part was innovated by Priscilla Lopez in the Broadway production. Bridget Krompinger as Maggie, although with no solo numbers, was accomplished vocally, while Renee Kaminsky as Val radiated delightful energy in her humorous number, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.”

Musical Direction by Anna DeMasi and her six musicians provided a skilled accompaniment to onstage action. Choreography by James Clark and Gene Bayliss tended to be uneven. 14 dancers were moved around the stage arbitrarily during Sheila’s song, while equally arbitrary groupings of company characters formed around Kristine’s and Al’s rendition of “Sing!” a number poking fun at Kristine’s (played by Emma Downing) tone-deaf ear for music. Andy Salom’s Set Design tended to cut corners, possibly because of production cost considerations. The mirrors indispensable for numbers like “The Music And The Mirror” and the reprise of “One” gave way to a lesser imitation, a foil-type material that tended to cheapen an effect.
      
The Richter Park open-air production of A Chorus Line was regrettably hampered by July rainstorms that seem to have been an enduring pattern of local Danbury weather. The performance this reviewer attended had to be stopped to avoid the hazard performers faced on a wet stage. Unfortunately, this occurred just before Diana’s poignant ballad “What I Did For Love,” and the rousing reprise of “One” that closes the show. In it, all dancers who auditioned for the chorus line appear in full costume to do the number before mirrors, suggesting that the joy of performing for the public is shared by a much wider community of artists.

A Chorus Line opened at the 25th season of Musicals at Richter, 100 Aunt Hack Road, Danbury, Ct 06811 on July 9, 2009 and closes on July 25, 2009. Performances are on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8:30 PM. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 203.748.6873 or online at info@MusicalsatRichter.org.

 

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