A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante, Lyrics by Edward Kleban, Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Directed by Eric Hill.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume?"
There cannot be any doubt, anymore, from anyone, that "A Chorus Line" is among the great theatrical achievements of the twentieth century. It opened at the Public Theatre as a New York Shakespeare Festival Production on April 15, 1975. Joe Papp didn’t have the money to finance an uptown production but with a borrowed 1.6 million dollars the show, for which early word-of-mouth had turned this lengthy preview into a sell-out hit, it opened at the Shubert Theater on July 25, 1975 and ran for 6,175 performance finally closing on April 28, 1990 with a colossal finale for which all of the touring companies and many cast members returned to dance in the finale. I was lucky. I saw it at the beginning and I was there at the end.
The show, with 13 Tony nominations and 11 wins, took home more awards than any other show and even won the Pulitzer Prize for its full team of creators. I have seen three productions locally in the past few years including the new one at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s gorgeous Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA. On opening night of this production an older man, probably not much older than me, walked out of the theater during a monologue delivered by the actor playing Paul San Marco, an admittedly gay man whose troubled past has come roaring back to haunt him. The man made a fuss, loudly at the back of the hall. After 37 years of "A Chorus Line" that was a remarkable occurrence and a tribute in some ways to the strength and character of this show and the reality of this production.
The first show to deal extensively and intensely with the professional and personal lives of the folks in the background whose work often makes a show wonderful, it was developed from real stories related by real people in a historic first workshop experience in the professional theater, sanctioned by the actors’ union. The work had that level of importance from the first. Its impact today is not lessened by the existence of Career Transitions for Dancers and other organizations that have come into being to help folks like these make the changes that bring them successful careers off the stage. Its impact, in fact, is even stronger for we can see the history behind this new world we live in and can still be moved and affected by the realities of the daily lives of professional chorus people that the show imparts to us.
Realities are brought to the fore by a fine cast and by a director and choreographer who have taken some risks here. Choreographer Gerry McIntyre has established some of his fine concepts in the musical numbers that dominate the show. Visually he is tied, somewhat, to the classic images of that long-run original and the final number, "One" bears the unmistakable stamp of its creators, Michael Bennett and Bob Avian. With the exception of Cassie’s solo, "The Music and The Mirror," his work was wonderful, high-powered and emotional. For Cassie’s piece there was too much unnecessary scenery movement which added nothing to the visual except restriction of movement. Perhaps there was a reason for this, but I can’t say what that might have been. Nili Bassman, playing Cassie, the former chorus girl whose breaks didn’t pan out, was doing just fine until the set change happened.
Eric Hill has clearly worked long and hard to not merely stage the play but to bring forth nuances in the large number of characters, helping to separate and define those people for us. The one moment in which he seemed to soft-pedal a much needed connection came late in the show when Paul breaks down emotionally and the usually harsh choreographer Zach comes to comfort him. Zach is required, but he comes too slowly, and too carefully, and provides only a modicum of that precious concern and that in a dark, upstage-left corner. Not good, Mr. Hill. Not up-front-and-present which is what that moment requires.
As Paul, Eddie Gutierrez gives a perfect performance. Sammi Williams who created the role worked in the theater from 1968 through 1990. I hope that Mr. Gutierrez has as long and healthy a career. He clearly deserves it.
Natalie Caruncho played Diana Morales with a crisp bite and healthy attitude. Her two songs, including the mega-hit "What I Did For Love," are beautifully rendered. Ashley Arcement is a robust and self-assured Val whose visits to the doctor are the subject of another great song. She and her rival Sheila, played with gusto and an even crisper bite by Dana Winkle, keep up the professionally bitchy end of the show and each of them provides musical and comedy highlights.
Al and Kristine are played with a couples complement by Tim McGarrigal and Margaret Wild, while Neil Totten handles his basketball driven Richie extremely well. Warren Curtis as Don adds another dimension portraying the character-dancer whose career may well be almost over. Matthew Bauman is a hale and hearty Mike, Alex Chester is a delightful Connie and Andrew Hodge an inimitable Bobby. Greg is nicely delivered by Chris Chianesi. The entire company, in fact, does more than just appear, they appear to be inhabiting their roles with a life-energy that makes their characters inseparable from their portrayers.
A special note about Zach, the choreographer holding the audition that puts these young professionals through the hell of self-identification and difficult dance combinations: he is played here by Noah Racey and this performance is as good as any I’ve seen since, and including, the original by Robert LuPone. He doesn’t bring the anger that some have played in the past. He doesn’t create an aloof professional animal either. He is human here, feeling and clearly feeling unhappy about many things. His scenes with Bassman’s Cassie are almost electrifying. His work with his dancers is professional and yet betrays concern for them as well as for his own need for absolute perfection. Racey has a hard job in a difficult show and he comes through.
This show has been a part of my life for thirty-seven years. Certain moments, close to my own history, have moved me to tears in each and every production and this one is no different. It is a curious thing to note that people all around me were sniffling at the same things that affected me: Paul's confession, the dancers partially hidden behind their permanent black and white smiles, the awkward dance movement and the beautiful ones as well. This is good stuff, apparently. This is reality television live and on stage and the actors are living their lives out for us all, in front of us, and with music. Can something difficult get any better than this!
Eddie Gutierrez is Paul
Eddie Gutierrez leads the finale; photo: Chris Reis
Noah Racey is Zach; photo provided
A Chorus Line plays at the Colonial Theatre, located on South Street in Pittsfield, MA as part of the Berkshire Theatre Groups summer season, through July 21. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444.