Review: A Chorus Line

Performance: Booking to 18 January 2014
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Wednesday 27 February 2013

'A Chorus Line', London Palladium. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Reviewed: 19 February 2013

To borrow a phrase from one of its best-known songs, A Chorus Line is ‘one singular sensation.’ This dazzling revival of the legendary Broadway musical was staged by Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original production in 1975 with director Michael Bennett. Most of the show’s key creative team are now dead, including Bennett, co-authors James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban and composer Marvin Hamlisch (just last year). But their work survives, and there is still greatness in it.

The premise is audaciously simple: a few handfuls of Broadway gypsies, or jobbing dancers, are auditioning for a new show for which there are only eight places. As there also a few speaking parts, the director-choreographer Zach (the Royal Ballet-trained John Partridge, apparently a familiar face to fans of East Enders) asks the mainly twentysomething hopefuls to speak about themselves as well as to dance. And this they do in a melange of text, song and movement that remains moving, entertaining and unique.

What we have here is a Pulitzer Prize-winning show about show business and its merciless magic: the dreams, dedication and disappointments, the rejections and rewards, the thanklessness and the fleeting glory, and all from a dance perspective. Little wonder that, for a certain generation, A Chorus Line was the kind of work that – like The Red Shoes or Michael Jackson – turned them onto dance.

This musical is very much of its era; the dancers’ garb (designed by the late Theoni V Aldredge), the cultural references (points for those who recognise the names Troy Donahue, George Hamilton and Jill St John) and the general tone are very mid-70s, especially to anyone who was around then. Devised (principally from taped interviews with dancers) decades before the rise of the televised talent competitions that are now such a fixture, as a time-piece it ticks along beautifully. But why does A Chorus Line seem only superficially dated? Maybe because it’s particularities of character are constructed from universal truths. We can identify with the people on stage as they face both the god-like Zach (often just a disembodied voice) and us on the straight, single and white downstage line that is the set. (Supplemented only occasionally by a backdrop of mirrored panels, the spare production design was another radical departure from a typical Broadway musical.) They’re exposed to his judgement and our collective gaze, but at the same time we can find aspects of ourselves reflected in them.

If I sound more than a little like I’ve just discovered the Holy Grail of musicals it’s maybe because a) A Chorus Line didn’t mean that much to me in the past and b) this uplifting version knocked me out. In a way the show presaged the democratisation of dance as embodied by disco, whereby anyone can be a star out on the dance floor. Here it’s the entire ensemble – even the show itself – that is the star. But of course this notion is disrupted – and lent dramatic urgency – by our knowledge that none of the auditionees are necessarily headed for stardom. They just want work, but some of them are going to fail in that quest.

The script’s 17 dancers are diverse and well-drawn, and many in the Palladium’s fine cast get a chance to shine. Adam Salter winningly struts his stuff in ‘I Can Do That.’ Ed Currie handles a long but broken-up monologue about his family background with witty aplomb. Button-cute Alexzandra Sarmiento is a standout in the first of four ‘montages’ that chart aspects of the characters’ histories and psyches – another sterling example of how Bennett and company were playing with form; it’s like group therapy (this, too, seems very 1970s) but up on its feet and usually accompanied by vocalising. Rebecca Herszenhorn puts over ‘Dance: Ten, Looks: Three’ (aka the ‘tits and ass’ number) with zest, while the lump-in-the-throat honesty of Gary Wood’s touching portrayal of gay, heart-on-his-sleeve Paul elicited audible nose-blowing on opening night.

Bearded and attractively beefy, Partridge’s Zach exudes high-strung authoritaty. Scarlett Strallen is excellent as Cassie, an outstanding hoofer whose sojourn in Hollywood didn’t lead to great things ‘It would be nice to be a star,’ she says. ‘But I’m not. I’m a dancer.’ Like the others, she just needs a job. But it’s complicated because she and Zach were lovers. Bennett staged their central confrontation scene brilliantly, with the ensemble rehearsing the steps for ‘One’ like some silent juggernaut as the couple argues downstage about what went wrong. It’s a subtle, painful summation of the schism between professional ambition and personal responsibility that driven, creative people can feel. Cassie’s ensuing big, instrumentalised solo dance isn’t, to my mind, the greatest choreography. But I get why it exists and what it means as the peak expression of the passion that compels Cassie to dance.

Apart from the showcased Strallen, my top marks go to Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Leigh ‘legs-for-miles’ Zimmerman. The former is terrific twice: first with ‘Nothing,’ a monologue-like song about absence of feeling in a highly Stanislavkian acting class, and later wringing every possible ounce of feeling, ironically enough, from ‘What I Did For Love,’ a ballad to which I’d previously been immune. As cynical showgirl Sheila, the statuesque Zimmerman bags some of the script’s best lines, but also knows just how to deliver them – sassy and sexy, sure, but tucked beneath the attitude is a little heap of sad anxiety. Both women deliver exceptionally strong, nuanced performances.

The show ends, as it must, with Zach’s selections of who did and didn’t make the grade. Strictly speaking, are the eight he casts in the show we never see as blend-in-the background and uniform as he intended? Doesn’t matter. The choices are made and they feel ‘right.’ For now what matters is that the tension that’s been mounting throughout this involving, bittersweet and wisely interval-free performance needs to be released. It happens via a full-blown, gold top-hat-and-tails reprise of One, a toe-tapping shot of genuine glitz that – like A Chorus Line itself – was an instant classic back in the day and can hardly be beat in terms of heart-fluttering excitement now.

Conclusions? Auditions can be nerve-wracking. Everybody’s got a story to tell. I want to dance.

Booking until 31 August 2013 – originaally set to run until 18 January 2014

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.
Next week Donald is leading English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word course, in conjunction with the company’s Emerging Dancer competition at Southbank Centre. Applications are being taken until 12 noon on Friday 1 March. Find out more

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