The Fuss about “A Chorus Line” (a sort-of review of Civic’s production)

A friend saw the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s production of “A Chorus Line” the weekend it opened. 

(The last performance will be this Saturday night.  The book is by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett.)

Afterwards my friend posted on her Facebook, “I enjoyed a performance of ‘A Chorus Line’ today, but I’m not really sure I understand the popularity and longevity of it.  What am I missing?”

The next day, she asked me about it in person, too.

I shrugged and tried to give a friendly but neutral response because:

a) I love that she goes to the theatre

b) I can’t help it that my training as a readers’ advisory librarian, which includes being nonjudgmental about people’s reading tastes, rubs off into other areas of my life

c) One’s relationship to any piece of art – whether it’s a play or a book or a painting or a movie or whatever – is personal.  It’s okay not to like everything.  Part of deepening your enjoyment of art in general is noticing when something just doesn’t resonate with you, and thinking about why.  Here on Indy Theatre Habit I focus on what I appreciate but you can bet I always notice what doesn’t work for me, too, just for myself.

Several people responded less neutrally to my friend’s Facebook update.  One person said that you have to have done theatre yourself to fully appreciate “A Chorus Line.”  Someone else said that its value is as a period piece.  Someone else implied that the show is more powerful when done with professional dancers.

Speaking of “Professionals”

I confess that I hadn’t intended to make room in my schedule for Civic’s production because I didn’t think this particular show would justify the high-for-me ticket price ($44 plus $6 if you buy online.) 

I’m not judging Civic, either, but the fact is: they don’t pay any of their performers.  Fortunately, some very talented, professional quality performers donate their time, experience, and artistry to Civic.  For example, destination actors for me in this production include Nathalie Cruz as Morales, the one who sings “What I Did For Love,” and Paul Nicely as Zach, the autocratic director/choreographer in the story.

However, Civic is, at heart, a community theatre, which means that a big part of the pleasure for the audience is seeing their friends and family pretending to be other people.  I love going to community theatre shows whether I know anyone in them or not simply because there is usually a lot of joy coming off the stage as people explore and share their creative sides, and I love being around that energy.

Also, usually, community theatre allows me to experience live stories and characters that are new to me at very affordable prices.  I don’t mind that the shows are not state of the art in terms of either performance or design because that is not why I’m there.

I also usually don’t mind shelling out $44 for Civic productions because I know that even if the quality of the performances is uneven or it’s a story I’ve already heard, the design elements will wow me. Civic does pays its designers and uses some of the best in the business.  Ryan Koharchik is a genius when it comes to lighting and set design, for example.

But, as I say, I wasn’t planning to do it for “A Chorus Line” because:

a) I had already seen and loved the Broadway Across America touring production of “A Chorus Line” in 2010

b) There are several other shows running in the Indianapolis area right now that interest me more and I can’t see everything

c) I couldn’t imagine that even the best designers would be able to do anything interesting with such an iconic show that focuses so much on dancers and their stories.  Or, if they did, I thought I would hate it because it would be too different.  The set is “supposed to be” all mirrors and dance bags.  The costumes are “supposed to be” all leotards and dance shoes with glittering outfits at the end. 

The Whimmiest of Whims

But I think my friend’s question provoked me more than I realized. What IS it about “A Chorus Line”?

So last night when I got off work around 6pm, even though I had planned to just go home and relax, I looked at the “Buy Tickets” area of The Center for the Performing Arts website and saw that in the Tarkington Theatre there were seven or eight unsold seats for that night’s 7pm performance of “A Chorus Line.”  I happen to live very close to the Center, so I figured if all the seats were sold out by the time I got there, it would not be too much of a wasted trip.

And the $44 that was not part of my original theatre budget for the month?  Well, I don’t splurge that way very often, so I’m confident I will be able to cut back in other (non-theatre) ways to pay for it.

I’m Glad I Saw It

I got to sit in the front row.  The community theatre joy was there and I basked in it.

The design elements were predictable enough to be satisfying, but there was also:

  • ·        enough attention to detail in the costume design (by Jean Engstrom)
  • ·        enough subtle touches of innovation in the choreography (by director Ron Morgan)
  • ·        enough nuance in the musical direction (by Brent E. Marty)
  • ·        and enough richness in the lighting design (by Ryan Koharchik)

that I had to laugh at myself and think, “All right, all RIGHT!  The ticket price is worth it!”

All those two-story-high, rotating, sliding mirrored panels must have cost a mint to make as well.

I enjoyed the work of the performers I’d known I would enjoy, plus several other individuals and the ensemble of singer-dancer-actors as a whole.  I’m sorry I don’t have time to copy all of their names here from the program.

I sat up straight and thought, “Hey!” twice:

1)   at Anne Nicole Beck’s layered portrayal of Cassie, Zach’s former girlfriend, and her solo piece – that woman can dance!

2)   at Tim Hunt’s flawless delivery of dancer Paul San Marco’s heartbreaking monologue about his journey of self-discovery – I’ve appreciated Tim’s dancing at the old American Cabaret Theatre, at Actors’ Theatre of Indiana, and more, but who knew that adorable man could act like that?!

And on my drive home I thought about my friend’s question.

So What IS It About “A Chorus Line”?

One reason that “A Chorus Line” endures, I think, is that it includes songs that you want to sing yourself, that you do find yourself singing in the car on the way home.

Another reason is that the performers have to/get to show off their singing AND acting AND dancing skills, and many audience members like to experience all of that in one show.

However, I think the main reason “A Chorus Line” has enduring appeal is because it is about universal themes related to being human.  It’s not just a show about many, many dancers auditioning for eight spots in a Broadway show. It’s not even just about the semi-final-cut dancers’ stories about how they came to be dancers, although those are interesting enough.

I think it also has enduring appeal because you experience it differently depending on where you are in life.  That’s true of any show, of course, but maybe “A Chorus Line” offers an unusual number of potential resonances.

When I first heard about this show in high school, back in the late 1970s, I think most of my peers experienced it as a reflection of our own starry-eyed determination to make our dreams come true.  Something like that.

When I saw the Broadway Across America tour of this show in 2010, at age 49, I was struck by the lines “Am I my resume?” and “What I did for love.”  I work hard and I love my job and I want to keep doing it for several more years, but is that all I am?  I won’t live forever; what else do I really want to do while I still can?

I was also struck by “the individuality of the anonymous,” which is a phrase coined by Indianapolis Business Journal’s arts editor Lou Harry when he reviewed that production.  I am never going to be Lou Harry (or the guy that gets to review theatre for the New York Times, or whatever) but my life is still interesting simply because it’s mine.

This time, I was struck by three other things:

First of all, Cassie’s line, “But they’re ALL special!” 

Zach has been telling Cassie that she shouldn’t settle for a place in the chorus because she has enough talent to be a star.  Cassie convinces him that neither she nor anyone else has to be a star in order to be valuable.

I think she is also saying that okay, yes, somebody has to be the director, Zach, and I’m glad you are willing to be that person, but every single other person in the company works hard, takes risks, makes sacrifices for their art, and so on, too.

So not only is each of “the anonymous” a unique individual, they are each of value.  Cassie’s line is a reminder to Zach, and to leaders of any kind, not to make assumptions about the interchange-ability or disposability of their crew or team or organization or whatever.

Ironically, I was also struck by Zach asking the group of dancers something like, “What would you do if you had to stop dancing today?” 

Paul has just injured his knee and been taken away to the hospital. It could happen to any of them at any time.

In any case, they will all have to stop dancing before their work lives are over.  What will their second careers be?

Most of the dancers haven’t thought beyond today.  Not really.

But it is their job to think about that, not Zach’s.  He cares about them, but he can’t hire every dancer that auditions, and he can’t keep forever everyone that he hires.  He has to think of the good of the whole show.  He even has to be ready to step down himself when the time comes.  Nobody should be disposable, but no one is indispensable, either, and there are no guarantees.  This is just life.

Finally, this time I was struck by Cassie’s line to Zach about not minding when she wasn’t part of his work when they were living together before, but minding that she wasn’t part of his life.  I don’t know if Cassie and Zach will ever get back together, but her line gives me hope that even we workaholics can be loved if we pay a little more attention to our lives outside of work.

Anyway…

Speaking of work, I’ve been writing this on my lunch break but I had better get back to my job or I won’t be able to buy any more theatre tickets!

Why do YOU think “A Chorus Line” is so enduring?  Do you think it deserves to be?

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter

4 thoughts on “The Fuss about “A Chorus Line” (a sort-of review of Civic’s production)”

  1. I’ve been up since 4:30AM, worked a ten hour day and then drove through a hail storm to see “Bloody Bloody, Andrew Jackson”. But I feel compelled to respond to this.

    I think it boils down to something Marvin Hamlisch said once” We are all on the line”. What makes “A Chorus Line” universal is that what happens to the dancers can be applied to anyone. We all have our hopes, dreams and demons. The universality of the show is why it matters. The show business aspect of it just a vehicle to convey that message.

    I love “A Chorus Line”. I think it is the Great American Musical. I’ve thought that ever since I saw it 34 years ago from the first Mezzanine at the Shubert in New York. I would have loved to have seen this production, but it did fall out of my budget range. Like you said Hope, “You can’t see everything.”

  2. Thanks very much, Jim, for this heartfelt, late night comment! I loved reading it, and I really appreciate your taking the time to write it!

    When I posted a link to this from my Facebook page, Megan McKinney wrote the following comment, which I also very much appreciate:

    “I love your review! Brava! I think its endurance is that it reminds everyone how hard yet normal it is to be rejected. No doubt the audience is guessing all along who will get the parts and no doubt in the end they guess wrong. All the auditioners prove themselves but so many are dismissed. It’s both comforting and heartbreaking.”

  3. Wonderful review Hope! I struggle with having to pick and choose which shows to fit into my schedule too. I think you’re right about Chorus Line. I love that it gives audiences a glimpse into the lives of the dancers.

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