“Chorus Line” Just a Couple of Beats Off

By Geary Danihy

You can’t go wrong deciding to board the iconic American musical “A Chorus Line.” Since its opening on Broadway in 1975, the show, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, with original choreography by Michael Bennett, has been an audience favorite, with several of its songs -- “What I Did Love” and the signature “One” -- and its corresponding choreography -- entering the American psyche. Thus, the musical, which one a hat-full of Tonys the first time around -- was a smart choice for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre up in Storrs to make to open its 2014 Nutmeg Summer Series, which will also include “The Sunshine Boys” and “Gypsy.” By and large, the show is as entertaining as ever, but there are some questions -- some technical, others having to do with the use of one of the show’s leads -- that had some in the audience scratching their heads.

For those who have been in a coma for the past four decades, the show deals with the aspirations of 17 dancers (know as “gypsies” in the trade) trying out for a Broadway musical. On an almost bare-bones stage, the seventeen literally and figuratively toe the line as they are put through their paces by Zack (Nick Lawson), the show’s somewhat demanding director, and Larry (Sean Jones), his assistant. As the dancers learn the routines, they are also asked by Zack (who is, for most of the show, just a voice reverberating in the theater -- a demigod of sorts) to reveal something about themselves. It’s these revelations (based loosely on taped workshops with real dancers held in 1974) that give the show its meat, for without them it would be little more than a revue or an up-dated “42nd Street.”

The aspirants all come from different backgrounds, with two of them, Cassie (Lori Ann Ferreri) and Sheila (Annie Wallace) being the “old’ pros -- they’ve been through the mill, with Cassie, who once lived with Zack, having almost achieved a sort of stardom. The other 15 dancers still, by and large, have stars in their eyes. Most of the cast is made up of college students or those who have recently graduated, and by and large they do a quite admirable job. Special note should be taken of Kristin Devine as Val -- her rendition of “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” (it’s the “tits and ass” song) has a light, saucy, humorous quality to it that made the audience light up, as well as Wallace as Sheila -- she gives just the right touch of world-weariness to the character, a weariness that belies her love of what she does. Then there’s Alanna Saunders as Diana -- her “Nothing” is dead-on and quite moving, and although she struggles just a tad with “One,” the audience responded with well-deserved appreciation. The fact that most of the cast is, in fact, composed of young dancers/actors on the brink of their careers gives the show a certain sparkle and touching relevance. You can’t help but wonder where, or if, you will see these faces in two or three years -- who will make it and who won’t.

Thus, the evening is well worth the trip up to Storrs. There are several things, however, that you will have to let pass. The first is the size of the stage itself -- it barely contains the 17 actors when they are lined up stage right to left, thus giving the “on-the-line” scenes a certain cramped feeling, with the dancers seeming to be jostling each other for elbow room. Next is the lighting (designed by Greg Purnell). I attended opening night, and perhaps some kinks were still being worked out, but there were times when the follow spots seemed to be searching for the actors they were supposed to be illuminating, and other times when the actors seemed to be missing their marks by a step or two -- especially in the “At the Ballet” sequence -- thus putting themselves into half-shadows. Perhaps one more day of tech rehearsal (boring as it is) might have been in order.

The final thing you will have to let pass is how Ferreri, as Cassie, is used. A Broadway pro, Ferreri often seems to be disregarded (intentionally or not) by director/choreographer Cassie Abate. In many of the dance numbers, though Ferreri is clothed in a bright red, eye-catching dress, she seems to inevitably end up far up-stage, behind the other dancers, as if Abate is trying to hide her. Then there is the supposed amorous relationship between Cassie and Zack -- the two speak the lines but you never get the sense that there was ever anything between them more than an occasional shared cup of coffee; it’s the director’s job to sense when chemistry isn’t working and do something about it. Finally, in the “What I Did For Love” number, Abate has Ferreri blocked extreme stage left -- she is visually removed and aloof from the emotion being expressed in the song by the rest of the cast – in fact, she looks more like an appreciative parent listening to her children -- she’s given absolutely nothing to do but just stand there throughout the entire number.

Yes, the negatives may seem like mere quibbles, but taken in sum they affect the overall feel of the show, a feel that says the show has yet to truly come together. And yet, it’s “A Chorus Line,” so you can’t help but respond to all those dancing feet, tipping hats, heartfelt stories and youthful exuberance. This may not be a perfect show, but you will be entertained, especially if you enjoy seeing young, talented actors taking their first, tentative steps into a world that may hold disappointment or...stardom.

The show runs through June 14. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.

 

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