Going to see the New York City Center Encores! production of A Chorus Line is a most wondrous trip down memory lane to a time when I was all young and innocent, just like many of those magnificent creations on stage last night. Don’t tell Mama, but I used to sneak a way to New York City from my little Canadian city of London, via Buffalo and People’s Express Airlines when I was a teenager, far too young to be doing that, but I just needed to spend a weekend of seeing Broadway musicals (and a few plays). I’ve written about these moments before on this blog, but this time, it’s about the quintessential musical of all those trips is A Chorus Line. I don’t recall if it was my first true Broadway musical or my second (Dreamgirls might be my first), but the lives and loves of these dancers were already firmly cemented in my head from the audio tape I had at home. These dancers meant something profound to me and my passion, just as much as musical theatre meant to these characters, and the people who helped create them. I remember it clearly, seeing it the Shubert Theatre sometime around 1980 (it actually opened in 1975), and the 2006 revival with a cast that included Charlotte d’Amboise and Tony Yazbeck, (the 1985 movie version isn’t worth mentioning), and just like this current NYCC production, A Chorus Line is directed by Bob Avian, who won his first Tony Award as co-choreographer for the original production of A Chorus Line, with Michael Bennett’s original and monumental choreography being reconstructed by Baayork Lee, Broadway’s original Connie Wong.
Those two are back, with revival Al DeLuca, Tony Yazbeck (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway) transferring to the power role of director Zach, with the musical director/coordinator Patrick Vaccariello (Broadway’s West Side Story) and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Bill Byers, and Hershy Kay giving glorious musical splendor to Edward Kleban’s lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch’s music, for which they received the 1975 Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Michael Bennett’s conceptual piece, drafted together by a group of frustrated dancers, led by Tony Stevens and Michon Peacock, is beautifully realized once again on the NYC stage, and it hasn’t lost any of its power or appeal. With a cast of spectacularly talented dancers and singers, A Chorus Line resonates just as it did for me 28 years ago. The songs are firmly planted in my head with every word and accent still present and persistent. With other shows, that fact sometimes makes it hard to enjoy a fresh new version, but with the likes of Diana, played magnificently by Tara Kostmayer (La Jolla’s Ojo) singing the glorious “Nothing” and the epic “What I Did For Love“; Mike, powerfully played by Tommy Bracco (Broadway’s Pretty Woman) decimating the dance floor with an athletic and divine rendition of “I Can Do That“; or Sheila (Leigh Zimmerman – Olivier Award winner for West End’s A Chorus Line), Bebe (Naomi C. Walley – Broadway’s Chicago), and Maggie (Sara Esty – Encores’ Grand Hotel) breaking our heart with “At the Ballet” (one of my all time favorites), the glorious wonder of the piece remains solid and everlasting. J. Elaine Marcos (Broadway’s Annie) also takes on one of the most memorable songs, “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” with renewed clarity and vigor disarming all.
Everyone shines in this piece, just as they should, with nary a step out-of-place. Jay Armstrong Johnson (Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, off-Broadway’s The Man Ones) is gorgeous and dynamic as Buffalo Bobby spinning a tale that is as delicious as he is; Kate Bailey (Paper Mill’s Grease) kills triumphantly as the off-key Kristine with help from the cute and talented Joseph J. Simeone (Broadway’s A Bronx Tale) as the adorable husband Al; the heavenly and handsome Max Clayton (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!) as strip club stud, Don, delivers; David Grindrod (Beauty and the Beast – national tour) gives Mark the holy power of divine confession; Jolina Javier (Avery Fisher Hall’s Cinderella) is a huge presence as a petite firecracker exploding forth as Connie; Denis Lambert (Encores’ Finian’s Rainbow) is perfection in droll and fabulous black as Greg; Melanie Moore (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof) is quirky and pixie adorable as Judy, and Anthony Wayne (Broadway’s Once on this Island) is simply being fantastic as the high kicking coulda-been kindergarten teacher, Richie. A magnificent symbiotic sensation.
In addition, acting chops go to the dancer Eddie Gutierrez (Ars Nova’s Loveology), as the quieter and possibly more damaged Paul. He tears us apart, perfectly balancing pain and persistence, fear and discomfort for us all to connect with. It’s one of many moments with this superb recreation when we get to see the struggling souls behind the bodies, the pain behind the pirouette, and the passion that lives inside the strong and defiant dancer looking for that beginning, that middle, or that final bow. Robyn Hurder (pre-Broadway’s Moulin Rouge) defines this determination and heart-break with every sound that comes out of her mouth, taking on the complicated and powerful Cassie, singing and dancing her heart out magnificently with the classic “The Music and the Mirror“. She’s an absolute glorious dancer, but it is when she belts out those lyrics that we truly feel we are seeing inside and joining with her passion. The somewhat forgotten are the first to be cut, but they also deserve our praise. It’s not easy finding unique characters in the eliminated ones, bringing carefully discovered personality to the forefront within those first few moments of that incredible conceived audition medley: Callan Bergmann (Broadway’s Kinky Boots) as foot-gazing headband-wearing Frank, Natalie Bourgeois (MUNY’s Hairspray) as ballerina Lois, Wesley Ian Cappiello (Gypsy – national tour) as wrong-armed Roy, Aaron Patrick Craven (Dirty Dancing – national tour) as the attitude filled Butch, Emily Franch (White Christmas– regional) as the non-ballet trained Vicki, Jenna Nicole Schoen (NY’s Jersey Boys) as solo Tricia, and Ahmad Simmons (Broadway’s Carousel) as standout jock-man, Tom.
Ryan Steele (Broadway’s Newsies) delicately leads the dancers through their routines as assistant Larry, and in his presence and the demanding way he leads these dancers through the paces, it reminds us that Encores! does the seemingly impossible. This crew of super talented professionals is given the shortest of rehearsal periods to pull this synchronicity together in record time. Each one needs to perform with precision, and the shocking thing is that they do. A Chorus Line dazzles and intoxicates, even if you forget about the preparation time frame. I have a feeling that within the opening dance audition segment, for a dancer to purposefully make choreographed mistakes might be far more complicated and unnatural than getting it right. It’s equal to the moments when Kristine has to astoundingly sing off-key, but that is just my guess and you can correct me if I’m wrong. But this crew doesn’t miss a step. To dance and sing this show as clearly a unit as they do, is utterly amazing, and a testament to everything this show is about. These gypsies deserve the stars, and our praise. So stand up and cheer for A Chorus Line. They are, obviously, one singular spectacular sensation, historically and into the future.