"God, I'm a dancer. A dancer dances." Cassie's desperate cry resonates in the fearful yet ever-hopeful soul of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical A Chorus Line, which is making a welcome return to the Fox Theatre. Cassie is one of seventeen dancers who share their dreams and innermost secrets while vying for eight openings in a new musical. In other productions, including the original Broadway staging, Cassies have sung those two lines almost politely. But Robyn Hurder delivers them with a volcanic force that reverberates to the furthest reaches of the Fox rafters. This is one of those shattering moments when actress and character become one.
There was a time in the 1980s when the original Shubert Theatre production of A Chorus Line was the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Nearly two decades later, it has been overtaken by three imported mega-hits. Now, A Chorus Line is merely the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. It's true: There's nothing very "mega" about this show; it's mostly just sublime. Yet despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of its simplicity, all these decades later, Michael Bennett's sometimes-raunchy valentine to theater gypsies is still capable of moving an audience to laughter, tears and goose bumps. Its very humanity elevates theatergoing to an event.
So it's reassuring to see that the 2006 New York revival (which this touring production replicates) was so faithful to the original. This is A Chorus Line in all its glory and all its flaws. It retains the genuineness of a pre-Cats, pre-Rent musical. Advances in theater technology have not intruded their glaring presence here. These actors don't wear microphones that make them look like telephone operators. Nor are microphones patched onto their foreheads. You can't even detect wires hidden beneath the performers' body-clinging leotards. In short, these actors look authentic; it's easy to believe that they are who they say they are. They are vagabonds, misfits, smart alecks, partakers of duplicitous lives. And they are all gifted.
Once again the show is being staged without an intermission. The evening lasts two hours, but when your principal theme is dignity, the time races by. It's also smart that the intermission has been removed, because — despite the throbbing pace, despite the still, translucent lighting by Tharon Musser and the lively, affectionately familiar songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban — the story line gets weaker as it goes along. Late in the evening, the arbitrary insertion of a fragmented romance between Cassie and Zach, the show's director-choreographer (Kevin Neil McReady, gentler than one expects in this authoritarian role), is about as welcome as a third foot. Then, when the show should be crescendoing to the climactic song "What I Did for Love," the dialogue goes slack. So much aimless chatter almost suggests that the dancers will say anything, simply to keep their hopes alive.
The evening's momentum is undeniable. The current cast is spotty. But even when the cast is uniformly ideal, the show's whole is always greater than its parts. Set pieces like "At the Ballet," "The Music and the Mirror" and "One" remind us of how enthralling live musical theater can be.
All evening long as these auditioning dancers reveal a microcosm of life on the anonymous fringes of show business, they reference The Red Shoes, the 1948 film that starred Moira Shearer as a driven ballet dancer. But for the generations of show-business hopefuls who have grown up since A Chorus Line galvanized musical theater in 1975 — and that would include most of the performers in this cast — Michael Bennett's paean to theater ambitions has replaced The Red Shoes as the grail. It would be impossible to estimate how many lives have been changed — how many decisions to enter the theater have been tipped — as the result of seeing this show. Surely lives are being changed by this production, too. A Chorus Line remains forever fresh.
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