Book: James Kirkwood Jr &Nicholas Dante
Lyrics: Edward Kleban
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Director: Bob Avian
Choreographer: Baayork Lee
Reviewer: Sonny Waheed
A Chorus Line provides a warts-and-all look at the near torturous process of selecting a dancing chorus for a musical. Set in a Broadway theatre in 1975, it features 17 people each desperate to secure one of eight places in the chorus line for an unnamed new musical.
It starts with all 17 going through a set of dancing rehearsals led by the show’s choreographer; the opening scene is a 10-minute staging of this rehearsal that gives a real sense of what a chorus dancer goes through to secure a job.
For the majority of the rest of the show, we go through a set of individual interviews the choreographer takes with each dancer. The choreographer, for the most part, is off-stage speaking to the cast via a microphone. The cast lined up across the middle of the stage and individually asked to step forward, give some information about themselves and then to explain why they want to dance.
From here, the show takes a darker, significantly unpleasant tone. The choreographer’s questioning is more akin to a psychiatrist than a dancing coach, and delivered in a menacing and often bullying manner. The cast, browbeaten into giving personal information, reveal stories of broken marriages, unloved family life, sexual abuse, unfulfilled dreams, emotional breakdowns and, even, unwanted classroom erections.
There is little explanation as to why such in-depth and personal interviewing is required ‘just’ to dance in a chorus line and the cast put up little or no reservations with the process. There’s a sense that the book created these scenarios to give the cast and production some emotional depth, but instead it seems wildly out of place for an audition process and becomes an alienating feature.
The production is further hindered by being less of a revival and more of a faithful restaging, making the choreography and orchestrations seem very dated. Key dance scenes provide strong reminders of Pans People in their heyday and the overall acting lacks any sense of reality. The musical score, too, is firmly anchored in the 70’s with flashbacks of background music from an episode of Starsky &Hutch.
In 1975, when A Chorus Line first opened on Broadway, it was up against the likes of My Fair Lady, The King and I and more ‘traditional’ musicals. In that light, it’s easy to see how something with contemporary music, dancing, language and topics can stand out from the crowd and create a real buzz. But, as with the recent revival of Hair, that doesn’t mean it can succeed today.
The West End has shown over the past few years, with shows like Top Hat, Singing In The Rain and Crazy For You, that you can be faithful to the past but still relevant to today. Unfortunately, A Chorus Line fails on the latter.