Theatre Review: “A Chorus Line” from Broadway Across America

(Note: Information about “Legally Blonde,” which opens at Clowes Memorial Hall on Tuesday, is at the bottom of this post.)

On Tuesday, April 20, 2010, I drove to the Butler University campus in Indianapolis to see the Broadway Across America touring production of “A Chorus Line” at Clowes Memorial Hall.

I had been waiting to see this show for more than 30 years.

And you know what?  It’s not so bad to have waited. 

I didn’t wait on purpose, mind you.  Circumstances of life kept me from seeing this show earlier rather than a deliberate “saving” of myself for the right situation or whatever.  And who knows?  Maybe if I had somehow seen this show when “everyone else” I knew in high school was seeing the Broadway tour of it the first time it was at Clowes, back in late 1970s, I might have thought, “I can do that!” and gone off to New York to Become An Actress instead of calmly realizing that I didn’t want an acting career badly enough to commit to a life of always being in job search mode. 

Art can be as influential an experience as sex, you know?

But in any case, I waited.  And my experience of seeing a stage production of “A Chorus Line” for the first time last week was very layered and powerful.

                 

A Period Piece with Contemporary Resonance

The show – a collection of personal stories elicited by a director from dancers auditioning for a new Broadway show – is set in 1975, so it is a period piece now instead of a contemporary one.  This makes it even richer, I imagine, than when it first was created.  I was moved to realize that life is different now in 2010, but the human experience is basically the same. 

For example, more people share their personal stories publicly on talk shows and blogs and social networking websites now, so the idea that dancers, especially chorus dancers, can talk and have unique things to say is no longer revolutionary, but our need to tell, hear, and connect our personal stories is as important as ever.

I also think that if I had seen this show when I was in high school, I might have thought it was just about dancing or even just performing on stage.  I might have understood that it was about, as Lou Harry said in his IBJ review, “the individuality of the anonymous,” (although I am sure that I would not have been able to articulate it that well!) However, until I had more life experiences of my own for the show to resonate with, I would not have understood as deeply that “A Chorus Line” is about everyone’s life, whether they are in “show business” or not.

Now, at middle age, I know that everyone asks, “Who am I anyway?  Am I my resume?” at one point or another, especially those of us that are workaholics.  I also know that everyone has to come to grips with the fact that nobody is good at everything.  I sympathized with the girl in the show who “sings” about the fact that she can’t, actually, sing very well, but at middle age I also know that everyone is “gifted” in some way and everyone is “special needs” in some way, even people who seem only one or the other.

I also, at middle age, know that people do many things “for love” other than dancing – everything from parenting to gardening to ministering to, well, writing a theatre blog.  Ever since I saw “A Chorus Line,” I have been thinking a lot about what I do “for love” and realizing that if there is something else I want to do, I don’t have forever in which to do it.

ACL High School Memory #1

I promise that I will eventually transition into talking about the actual production I saw at Clowes, but if you will indulge me a moment more, I would like to relate two specific “A Chorus Line”-related experiences from high school that, well, yes, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they changed my life, even though I had not yet seen the show itself or even the (very disappointing) movie version that came out later.

The first experience was when I was in the audience for a local Junior Miss pageant.  I would never in a million years have entered such a contest myself but I had friends who were in it, so I was there to Be Supportive.

More than one of the girls sang “What I Did for Love” as their talent portion.  That and “Send in the Clowns” seemed to be the songs of choice at a lot of public singing events that year.  Whenever I heard the line “Kiss today goodbye…” I would roll my eyes and think, “Oh, boy, here we go again.”

But then at the Junior Miss pageant an upperclassman named Susan Hof came on stage.  She was tiny and pretty and a member of our school’s top show choir.  She was dressed only in a black leotard and black tights, with a (blue?) scarf around her hips.

She sang about being accepted at a special performing arts school in New York City and how it was the fulfillment of a dream…until she actually went to the introductory acting class and the teacher, some schmuck named Mr. Carp, was a real jerk to her.

Susan used the scarf as a prop.  First it was a muffler around her neck when she tried to follow the Mr. Carp’s instructions to portray riding a bobsled down a hill and “feel the wind rush, feel the wind rush…” but he and the other students told her she wasn’t doing it right.  She tried and tried, but everyone just laughed at her.  She used the scarf as a shawl over her head then, when she “went to church, prayed to Santa Maria, ‘Send me guidance, send me guidance…”  But she never could do the acting exercises in a way that pleased Mr. Carp. 

But (and this was the part that was a core-shaker for me as a high school student) rather than accept his assessment that she was nothing, she transferred to the dance department.  And became a dancer on Broadway and lived happily ever after.  And did not feel one bit guilty or sad about giving up on that authority figure, even when she heard later that Mr. Carp had died.

Selina Verastigui, the woman who plays Diana in the current touring production of “A Chorus Line,” brought back that empowering memory of Susan Hof’s performance of “Nothing” and blew me away with her beautiful rendition of “What I Did for Love.”

ACL High School Memory #2

Another time, I was at an audition for a musical at my high school.  I think it was for “Funny Girl.”  Another senior, a girl named Suzanne Kunesh (who was also in the top show choir, of course, and a popular lead for straight plays as well) came out on stage wearing a goofy sailor/school uniform and oversized glasses, with big freckles drawn on her face and her long hair in horizontal Pippie Longstocking braids.  She sang “Zits and Sass,” a hilarious take-off on a song from “A Chorus Line.”

I laughed along with everyone else, even though I did not know what she was parodying.  The reason this experience was a core-shaker for me was that I overheard Suzanne tell a friend afterwards, “He (the director) knows I can sing, but he’s never seen me do comedy.  I wanted him to know I can be funny, too.”

I was impressed at the time that even though everyone in the room, including the director, knew that Suzanne was the best performer in the whole school and maybe on the whole planet, and in some ways the reincarnation of Fanny Brice herself, Suzanne did not take anything about that audition for granted.  She analyzed it and prepared for it and gave it her absolute best.

I still think about Suzanne’s audition that day whenever I apply for a job.

In the professional touring production of “A Chorus Line” that I saw at Clowes Hall recently, Kristen Martin plays Val and sings about how successful she has been ever since she paid for new “tits and ass” in the song “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three.” She is a perky delight.

Zach and Cassie

Derek Hanson plays Zach, the god-like director requiring dancers to tell him personal stories as part of their audition for his next big Broadway hit.  Zach says that he wants to get to know the dancers because it is important to pull together a team of people whose energies all fit together well, or something like that.  That made sense to me, but I also thought, as he asked his probing questions, “Hey!  Zach and my inner Curiosity Girl have a lot in common!”

I was glad to read in Jay Harvey’s Indianapolis Star review that Derek plays Zach “more sympathetically” than other Zachs that Jay had seen, because I swooned whenever Derek was on stage demonstrating dance steps and I loved the sound of his voice whenever he spoke from some mysterious location behind us.

The chemistry between him and one of the auditioners, Cassie (Rebecca Riker), was swoon-worthy, too.  During a break, Zach asks Cassie privately why she left him before.  She says, with compassion in her voice, that he had left her long before in his quest to be the best at everything related to theatre.  He says, “You’re too good for the chorus!” and she says, in so many words, “Unlike you, I don’t care about being a star. I just want to dance.”   Their dialogue is very brief, actually, but oh, they communicate so much in that handful of lines!

And then Cassie sings and dances a piece called “The Music and the Mirror.”  It is just her on stage, now, dancing for herself, and for us, in the movable mile-high mirrors at the back of the set. 

My throat caught, watching Rebecca dance, because I could see why Zach wanted to push Cassie into stardom:  she is special.  But I could also see that Cassie truly doesn’t share his ambitions.  Dancing, “just” dancing, is enough for her because it is her life.

How Many Boys, How Many Girls?

I pretty much cried and shook all through this show, both because it had become so iconic for me and because the live performances were so powerful.

For example, I was moved to tears by the three women who sang/danced/told in beautiful harmony about how their dysfunctional lives became whole and good “At the Ballet” – Maggie (Stephanie Martignetti), Sheila (Ashley Yeater), and Bebe (Kirstin Tucker.)

On the other hand, I laughed with pleasure at Mike’s (Andy Mills) joyful flips as he sang/danced/told about tagging along to his sister’s dance class and realizing, “I Can Do That.” 

I also laughed in sympathy as Kristine (Hilary Michael Thompson) and her husband, Al (Nathan Lucrezio), sang/danced/told about her inability to “Sing!”

I got chills when Paul (Nicky Venditti) told, simply told, about discovering both his controversial calling as a dancer in drag and his father’s unexpected and total acceptance of him when he found out.  Based on things I have read since seeing the show, I realize I may have misunderstood Paul’s story.  Maybe it supposed to be completely tragic.  However, when I heard it, it was both painful and healing.

Several of the other dancers’ stories were fun and/or moving as well.

The Design Elements as Story Supporters

The scenic design, by Robin Wagner, is basically composed of a rich, black curtain that opens to reveal a wall of fabulously tall mirrors than can swivel around and move forward and back on an otherwise empty stage.  The bank of mirrors is just right for making it seem as if there are sometimes a million dancers competing for the few roles.  However, the relatively empty set is also just right for making the finalist dancers seem small and yet essential, and impressive when all in a line.

Tharon Musser’s lighting design, adapted by Natasha Katz, supports the dancers’ storytelling more specifically by providing mood-enhancing color, attention-focusing spots, and other things for which I don’t have the vocabulary but which made me think, “The lighting in this show is the singer-storytellers’ friend!”

The costumes, designed by Theoni V. Aldredge, are a visually pleasing mix of subtly period street clothes and dancewear, except for the finale outfits, which are dazzling.

And the Dancing?

The dancing is exhilarating.

From the Press Release:

The National tour cast currently features Alissa Alter (Lois), Kevin Curtis (Butch), Jonathan Day (Tom), Heather Duckworth (Judy), Paige Faure (Vicki), Derek Hanson (Zach), Tim Hausmann (Frank), Andrew Hodge (Greg), Bryan Langlitz (Don), Nathan Lucrezio (Al), Stephanie Martignetti (Maggie), Kristen Martin (Val), Andy Mills (Mike), Kristen Paulicelli (Tricia), Catherine Ricafort (Connie), Rebecca Riker (Cassie), Andrew Roubal (Mark), Michael Scirrotto (Larry), Donald C. Shorter, Jr. (Richie), Hilary Thompson (Kristine), Kit Treece (Bobby), Kirstin Tucker (Bebe), Aaron Umsted (Frank), Nicky Venditti (Paul), Selina Verastigui (Diana), Ashley Yeater (Sheila) and swing performers Adam Brown, Venny Carranza, Lauryn Ciardullo and Emilee Dupré.

A CHORUS LINE reclaimed its place in the heart of Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 W 45th St) where it opened to rave reviews on October 5, 2006.  Elysa Gardner of USA Today calls it “Exhilarating and endearing, it still has a freshness and fervency too seldom seen in contemporary musicals,” while The New York Daily News exclaims “There’s nothing better! The show thrills from the opening number to the glittering finale,” and Jeffrey Lyons of WNBC TV hails it “An American Masterpiece.   A show for the ages.”  A CHORUS LINE is directed by its original Tony Award winning co-choreographer Bob Avian and is produced by John F. Breglio for Vienna Waits Productions. 

A CHORUS LINE recouped its entire $8 million investment after only 157 performances (19 weeks) on Broadway.  It broke the theatre’s box office record 7 times in its first 5 months.  A CHORUS LINE ended its Broadway run on August 17, 2008 after 18 preview and 759 regular performances. 

A CHORUS LINE, conceived and originally choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett, features a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. For this new production, Baayork Lee re-stages the original choreography. 

The new production features scenery by Robin Wagner, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, lighting by Tharon Musser adapted by Natasha Katz and sound by Acme Sound Partners.  Musical supervision is by Patrick Vaccariello with musical direction by John C. O’Neill, orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, Billy Byers and Hershy Kay and vocal arrangements are by Don Pippin.  The new 2006 Broadway cast recording of A CHORUS LINE was released by Masterworks Broadway and is available in stores nationwide.    

The original production of A CHORUS LINE opened at the Public Theater’s Newman Theatre on May 21, 1975 and transferred to Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on July 25th, opening there on October 19th of that year.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Score and Book, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.  It ran for nearly 15 years, closing on April 28, 1990 after 6,137 performances.  A CHORUS LINE remains the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.  

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A little piece of paper inserted in my Playbill said that “At this performance the role of LARRY will be played by Jonathan Day.”

Box Office

“A Chorus Line” has left Indianapolis but the next show in the Broadway Across America line-up, “Legally Blonde,” opens here in Indy at Clowes Memorial Hall next Tuesday, May 4, 2010.  I am not going to be able to see it on opening night or the night after, and I don’t know, yet, whether or not I will be able to squeeze in a visit later in the week, so I am going to go ahead and share with you one photo and most of the press release, below.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com, too.

(Photos above taken by Paul Kolnik.  Roll your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.)

(Indy Theatre Habit readers left some useful comments when I first posted some Quick Thoughts about this show.  Read them here.)

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THE FIRST NATIONAL TOUR OF LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL will begin performances at Clowes Memorial Hall, on May 4, 2010 and run through May 9, 2010 as a Broadway Across America 09/10 Season Presentation.

 Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased from an authorized ticket agent online at BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, or in person at Clowes Memorial Hall, The Old National Centre and the Broadway Across America Box Office downtown at 342 Massachusetts Avenue.

Sorority star Elle Woods doesn’t take “no” for an answer. So when her boyfriend dumps her for someone more “serious,” Elle puts down the credit card, hits the books, and sets out to go where no Delta Nu has gone before: Harvard Law. Along the way, Elle proves that being true to yourself never goes out of style.

In its first year on Broadway, LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL earned seven 2007 Tony Award nominations, ten 2007 Drama Desk Award Nominations, a 2007 Outer Critics Circle Award and the chorus of the musical was honored by Actors’ Equity Association’s Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs (ACCA) with the first ever ACCA Award. The musical also ranked in the top ten list of the most requested Ticketmaster “Arts & Theatre Events” for 2007. LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL received three 2009 Touring Broadway Awards in New York City on May 4, 2009. The show won awards for Best New Musical, Best Production Design and Best Choreography of a Touring Production. The Awards, presented by The Broadway League, honor excellence in Touring Broadway. It is the only such national award.

Becky Gulsvig, the Elle understudy in the original Broadway cast, is Elle Woods in the tour. Fans of the MTV reality show “Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods”, which premiered on June 2, 2008, will recognize a familiar face in the tour casting: Third runner-up and fan favorite Rhiannon Hansen appears as Elle’s best friend Margot. The reality show represented the musical’s second venture with MTV. In the fall of 2007, MTV aired LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL in its entirety to stellar ratings and was subsequently nominated for two 2007-2008 Daytime Emmy Awards.

 Joining Ms. Gulsvig and Ms. Hansen are DB Bonds as Emmett, Natalie Joy Johnson as Paulette, Jeff McLean as Warner, Megan Lewis as Vivienne, Coleen Sexton as Brooke, Michael Rupert as Professor Callahan, Tiffany Engen as Serena, Lucia Spina as Enid and Candice Marie Woods as Pilar.

 Also featured in the cast are: Barry Anderson, Sara Andreas, Kyle Brown, Liberty Cogen, Ven Daniel, Brooke Leigh Engen, Spencer Howard, Paul Jackel, Jason Kappus, Ashley Moniz, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, Brian Patrick Murphy, CJay Hardy Philip, Alex Puette, Jonathan Rayson, Constantine Rousouli and J. B. Wing.

The Original Broadway Cast Recording for LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL was released on Ghostlight Records, an imprint of Sh-K-Boom Records, and captured the #1 slot on the Billboard Cast Album chart and charted at #86 on the Billboard Top 200. The album has continued its success, charting every week as one of the top-selling Broadway cast recordings and soared to the Top 10 albums (of any genre) on iTunes once the show premiered on MTV.

As on Broadway, Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell is the director and choreographer. Music and lyrics are by both Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and the book is by Heather Hach. The production features scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner and Paul Miller, orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke and sound design by ACME Sound Partners.

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL is produced on tour by Hal Luftig, Fox Theatricals and Dori Berinstein, in association with MGM Onstage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber.

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL will play Clowes Memorial Hall from May 4-9, 2010: Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday Evenings at 8:00 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday Matinee at 1 p.m., and Sunday Evening at 6:30 p.m.  Tickets range in price from $22.00-$72.00 and may be purchased online at BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, in person at Clowes Memorial Hall, The Old National Centre and the Broadway Across America Box Office downtown at 342 Massachusetts Avenue.  To purchase tickets by phone, call 1-800-982-2787.

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For more information on LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL, visit www.LegallyBlondeTheMusical.com

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(“Legally Blonde” photo above taken by Joan Marcus.  Becky Gusvig is Elle Woods and Frankie is Bruiser.)

3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “A Chorus Line” from Broadway Across America”

  1. Thanks so much for this thorough review of ACL, Hope. Your personal reminiscences don’t detract from it; they enrich it. After all, this is a familiar show that has been done many times over the years, (and it’s closed in Indy!), so you need something to set apart an ACL review!

    I don’t know if you were referring specifically to my comment when you mentioned Paul’s story perhaps seeming “completely tragic.” I know I commented on feeling that it was presented that way when I saw a production of ACL way back in ’85 or ’86 at Beef & Boards. The only other production I’ve seen of it was that awful movie (which came out a year or so later), so I want to clarify that I could have missed some nuances of Paul’s story at the time (I was just a kid) or misremembered it since then. I honestly didn’t remember the point about his father unquestioningly accepting him (I remembered him as being alienated from his family). So I guess my point is…don’t give too much weight to my remembrances of that aspect of the show if I’m the only person you’ve seen complaining about it. 🙂

  2. You’re welcome, Ericka. Thank YOU for reading and commenting!

    Re: Paul’s story, I was thinking about your earlier comment but also Jay Harvey’s review in the Indy Star, which talks a little about Paul’s “emotionally wrenching…struggle for self-respect,” and about what I remembered of that (I agree) awful movie version.

    Maybe Paul’s story in the movie is played more as him being rejected by everyone, including his father.

    And maybe I just know, now, about more families that do love and accept their children no matter what, so I interpreted Paul’s father’s reaction as completely loving, rather than a mixture of love and regret and fear.

    But also, I think the way that Paul tells about his parents coming to the theatre early, before he is finished dancing in drag, and seeing him dressed that way, can be told in more than one way. I _think_ that in this production, the way that actor Nicky Venditti tells it is that Paul expected his father to shame and disown him, but his father says “Good luck” or something like that, and means it, putting his hand on his shoulder for the first time as well, too. So, rather than a damaging, shaming moment, it is a healing moment.

    But…then why is it so hard for Paul to tell Zach about it? Hmm.

    I wish I could see this production again and watch for this scene in particular! 🙂

    In any case, it seemed to me that Paul’s story in this production was a hopeful one, even though painful.

    By the way, there is one other openly gay character in the show. I can’t remember his name, but he talks about making out with his girlfriend when he was younger, “touching her breast and touching her breast and touching her breast…” until she says provacatively, “Would you like to touch something lower?” He thinks about it and realizes that no, he wouldn’t, and that is when he realized he was gay.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful comments, Ericka!

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