Book: James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics: Edward Kleban
Director: Nikolai Foster
It’s 1975 and a new Broadway show is casting its chorus. Early in the day, a group of hopeful dancers are being put through their paces by Larry, the director’s assistant. But this is not the saccharine-sweet look behind the scenes where an out-of-town ingenue can find themselves cast and leading the company in the space of a few bars – this is the very antithesis: it’s hot, sweaty and sheer hard physical work all day, giving the audience a glimpse of how these youngsters are paying for their moments glittering in the spotlight,
As the curtain rises, the company is joined by the Curve’s Young Ensemble filling the stage with movement in the opening scene, in which we first begin to hear the cast’s need for this job in the song I Hope I Get It – a need that is certainly financial but that is so much more as well, bound up, as it is, with who they are.
The initial group is quickly whittled down to 17, from whom the eight required will be selected. And it is now that director Zach puts his own stamp on the process. He explains that he needs a close-knit company, one that can work together instinctively, one in which everyone knows and trusts everyone else. To that end, questions about themselves, their backgrounds, how they got into dance, what they might do after they can no longer dance are interspersed with the dance numbers they learn. This perplexes the dancers and they initially find it hard to open up – after all, they spend much of their professional time suppressing themselves in favour of an onstage persona, a character.
What follows is based heavily on real testimony from dancers garnered by Michael Bennett, whose idea it was to look deeper inside the characters. That knowledge – that in some sense we are sharing real experiences – makes the whole so much more powerful. There are moments of lightness: the duet between husband-and-wife team Kristine (a bubbly Katie Lee) and Al (played with evident pride by Joshua Lay) in which Al finishes his wife’s sentences in perfect tune because she can’t sing is a joy, while the cynical paean to plastic surgery in Dance: Ten; Looks: Three from Val (Chloe Saunders) can’t help but raise a wry smile; but also moments of great poignancy. When Paul San Marco (in an electrifying performance from Ainsley Hall Ricketts) opens up to Zach about his difficult past there is an air of anticipation almost tangible as the audience collectively holds its breath. We always suspect that there might be a more vulnerable side to Zach and Adam Cooper is able to show us that in the moving close to this scene: but for most of the time he controls and bullies the dancers, often appearing as a disembodied Big Brother-like voice, sweeping onto stage to dominate it when needed.
Grace Smart’s clever staging is deceptively simple, being a large open space and little else. Mirrors upstage serve to focus attention on individuals and give us occasional glimpses of the audience, while lighting gantries swoop and twist like dancers themselves as part of Howard Hudson’s lighting design. However, the use of live projection of characters onto the back wall is less successful: while it allows us to see the emotions that pass over the characters’ faces, on press night at least, there was a noticeable lag meaning that lip movements and words were not quite synchronised.
Like chorus lines across Broadway, the West End and beyond, A Chorus Line is very much an ensemble piece populated by singers and dancers at the top of their game. There are no weak links – the show pretty much demands that – with excellent voices and movement that are showcased in the finale. Finally, the dancers can get on with the job in hand, dressed in sparkly costumes and moving as one in One, their own personalities again safely hidden away. This is a gem well worth seeking out.
Runs until 31 December 2021