REVIEW: “A Chorus Line” at Signature Theatre is one singular sensation!
The pesky problem with game-changing musicals like “Oklahoma!”, “A Chorus Line”, or “Rent” is that once they change the game, the game has been changed for all that follows, which, ironically, can make them seem quaint by comparison.
In the case of “A Chorus Line”, itself a groundbreaking revolution for Broadway and American musical theatre writ-large—earning nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize before becoming (for a time) the longest running show in Broadway history by a long-shot—the property has not been well-served by an ideology of museum preservation exercised by its small circle of legacy-keepers.
Nearly every professional company since director and choreographer Michael Bennett’s blazingly iconic 1975 production has presented a paint-by-numbers facsimile that led me to declare “A Chorus Line” the “amber fossil of musicals” following 2018’s otherwise thrilling gala presentation at New York City Center (read my review). At the time, I wished for someone to approach the musical with new eyes. A year later, my prayer has been answered.
A sensational new production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia makes a compelling case for experimenting beyond the container of the original—breathing new life and new energy into “one of the best musicals ever”, and reclaiming the magic that made the show such a milestone in the first place.
With “the cooperation” of John Breglio, sole executor of Bennett’s will, Signature’s “A Chorus Line”, under the direction of associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner, marks one of the first times that the show has ever been presented without Bennett’s original staging and choreography, Theoni V. Adlredge’s costumes, Robin Wagner’s set, or Tharon Musser’s lighting.
The result, though not always effective, is nothing short of thrilling.
For the somehow unacquainted, “A Chorus Line” dramatizes an unconventional audition for an unnamed Broadway musical, diving deep into the individual lives of its aspiring chorus dancers “on the line” jockeying for jobs before they synchronize as “one” in the most memorable, kick line finale in all of Broadway history.
The show is deceptively simple, with little set, basic costumes, and a form-defying conceit. Yet, “A Chorus Line” is a difficult show to get right. It calls for an ensemble of 19 triple-threats who are extraordinary dancers, actors, and singers; an orchestra of 16 (faithfully re-created here with ten); and in less able hands, can easily devolve into schmaltzy shlok, leaning too heavily on sentiment over truth and grit.
Mr. Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones (“Tootsie”, “Holiday Inn”) lead a phenomenal cast who, at a minimum, check the necessary boxes—one need only say the words of Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood’s brilliant book and sing the terrific songs of Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban to have the desired effect—but also deliver a handful of knockout performances that combine to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Of note is Matthew Risch who plays the director, Zach, and is stationed in the middle of the audience instead of in his customary spot in the back of the auditorium; this decision pays dividends not only because it is more realistic, but also because it affords the audience the opportunity to observe Zach observing his “line” of dancers, fully expanding the meta-theatrical device at the heart of the piece and better engaging his character in the action.
Mr. Risch’s handsomely rich voice reverberates throughout Signature’s intimate Max theatre—a 275 seat giant black box—and his cerebral and reserved characterization heightens the tension of the audition itself. It is clear that this Zach is a serious artist.
Maria Rizzo is pitch perfect as Sheila, the steely, “aggressive”, sad, and wise dancer hoping for one more chance as she approaches 30; she’s a standout, and her final moment on stage, following her ultimate rejection, is devastating. Trevor Michael Schmidt’s Mike is playful and energetic, his athletic “I Can Do That” an early showstopper. And Daxx Jayroe Wieser’s Mark, the youngest of the auditioners, is exuberant and joyful to observe.
Other character highlights include Lina Lee’s grounded portrait of Connie, free of caricature accentuation, and Ben Gunderson’s Bobby, who is hilariously funny. Similarly, Adena Ershow manages to gets laughs for “Dances: Ten, Looks: Three” (aka “tits and ass”), a great song that typically isn’t funny once you know the joke.
The rest of the company shines, moving brilliantly as an ensemble, especially in Mr. Jones’ re-imagined Montage (“Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” / “Nothing”) the single most compelling and expertly executed portion of the entire production. I could watch it in a loop. It’s musical theatre heaven.
“The Music and the Mirror”, a showstopper originally designed for show-stopping dancer Donna McKechnie who created the character of Cassie (Zach’s ex), is the biggest disappointment of the production. A song whose dance break music has always been more thrilling to me than its accompanying choreography is even more underwhelming here. However, it was the only moment of the entire show in which I found myself missing Michael Bennett’s touch and a Broadway star—a testament to the strength of the original writing, the new direction and choreography, and the skill of this well-cast ensemble.
Mr. Gardiner’s work evinces that he did not make choices simply to do things differently or starkly opposite from the original; instead, he and his creative team have approached the property as free from pre-conception as they can be given its cultural saturation and historical significance—an approach not unlike Daniel Fish’s brilliant revival of “Oklahoma!”. Unlike that production, though, there is no overarching conception driving the piece. Instead, Mr. Gardiner and company simply endeavor to tell the story of “A Chorus Line” as truthfully as they can—and I am delighted to report that it works.
Hearing monologues so familiar I could repeat the text back on cue, I was struck by their organic delivery, and by the palpable chemistry of the ensemble. The unseen ten-piece orchestra sounds incredible as they perform Marvin Hamlisch’s score, an oft under-appreciated signature of which is the near constant underscoring of the book scenes, as in a movie.
Emmy Award winning set designer Jason Sherwood makes the most of a shallow stage, replacing the iconic white line with three lines lit from below. His decision to eschew full length mirrors upstage and replace them with a waist-high horizontal strip of mirror that wraps around the stage on three sides, is not only impractical for the purposes of the audition happening in the musical, but also frustrates executing the central metaphor of the audience seeing themselves reflected on stage.
Otherwise, the lightly-colored vinyl walls of the set allow for Adam Honoré’s crisp and evocative lighting design to enjoy a fuller effect than if projected into a black expanse or a mirrored space. The audition costumes by Sarah Cubbage nicely convey the personalities of each character and the time period of the piece without appearing to copy the original costume plot or distractingly comment too heavily on 1970s fashion.
By the finale, performed in silver instead of the traditional gold, I lost track of how many times this production put a tear in my eye or else caused the stifling of a full-on “ugly cry”.
If the last recreation of Bennett’s original at New York City Center left me analytically skeptical of the enterprise of museum presentation, this blissfully energetic but faithful re-imagining of a beloved classic affirms my intuition that “A Chorus Line” is strong enough at its core to thrive without Michael Bennett at the helm.
As critic and writer Frank Rich observed about Bennett in 1994, “[h]is direction of ‘A Chorus Line’ is inevitably diluted by the memories of those who recreate it and one day will fade entirely.”
No matter what, though, Bennett’s DNA will always course throughout “A Chorus Line”, and the greatest joy of this sensational production is seeing a new generation reinterpret and reinvigorate his singular vision.
Ooh! Sigh! Give it your attention.
This “A Chorus Line” proves that it’s still the one.
Bottom Line: A sensational new production of “A Chorus Line” at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia makes a compelling case for experimenting beyond the container of Michael Bennett’s iconic original. A well-cast ensemble of triple threats breathes new life and new energy into “one of the best musicals ever”, and reclaim the magic that made the show such a milestone in the first place. This production is a must-see for any D.C.-area theatre fans.
“A Chorus Line”
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206
Running Time: 2 hours (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 6, 2019
Final Performance: January 5, 2020