A Chorus Line is one of the most beloved musicals in the modern canon. The fifth longest-running show on Broadway and one of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this is a show that speaks to people about art and what it takes to create it.
Tim Lawson’s current Australian production, which opened at the Adelaide Festival Centre and has just travelled to Sydney’s Capitol Theatre for a limited engagement, feels more like a tribute to the legacy of this incredible show than an embodiment of it – though that’s not a bad thing. The audience was warm, receptive, and so generous with their applause. We love this show. We know this show. We welcome it to our stage because what are stages without shows like A Chorus Line?
A Chorus Line is, simply put, spectacular theatre." A Chorus Line is, simply put, spectacular theatre"
Germinating from recorded conversations about life in the chorus by a group of ensemble dancers in New York City, when A Chorus Line opened on Broadway in 1975 it received a thunderously strong reception (it was a pretty good year for musicals – Chicago first opened in 1975, too). Here was a show about growing into adulthood and finding yourself. Here was a wonderfully self-referential show about auditioning for a part on Broadway. Here was thrilling dance, confessional monologues, and unflinching humanity. And there it was on a bare stage with nothing but a few mirrors and nineteen performers.
From the first moment on stage at the Capitol, it’s clear that A Chorus Line is something different. And it doesn’t take much longer than that to realise that it’s something really special.
Basically, this is the show: seventeen dancers are auditioning for eight roles in the ensemble of a new show. They line up on stage – a disparate, diverse group of dancers. Disembodied director Zach (Joshua Horner) is little more than a voice for much of the production. He tells the dancers that he has their resumes, and he’s seen them dance. But he needs them to act, too, and he wants to know that they can be real. So he starts to work through the line, inviting the characters to talk about themselves. To tell him something real – about where they come from, or why they started dancing.
Once they start talking, the dancers become instantly, achingly vulnerable. They become three-dimensional and beautifully flawed humans. And it is mesmerising to watch. There is a quiet character named Paul (Euan Doidge), and when he finally tells us his story, it’s probably one of the most moving moments you’ll ever have in a musical.
Director/Choreographer Baayork Lee has given us a gift with this this production – we care about all of these dancers.
The great thing about A Chorus Line is its ability to connect – even the documentary Every Little Step (get ready to get even more meta; this is a doco about casting the Broadway revival of this show, which is, remember, a show that’s about casting a Broadway show) can choke people up.
Everyone has been lost in their family life, their school life, and their social life. Everyone has something they love that takes them away from it. For you it might be stamp collecting or, I don’t know, World of Warcraft. But for these characters, it’s dancing. And on stage at the Capitol, it’s incredibly relatable.
The dancing in Lee’s production is breathtaking. The famed opening number “I Hope I Get It” is a treat of audition variations and it’s like a master class in performance. Every dancer is subtly different and their intentional missteps are warmly funny. At the end of the show we’ll see them become completely uniform, as a chorus line should be, but right here, they’re just people trying to get a job, and it’s perfect.
Lee, who played Connie in the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, has remained true to the show she helped create; the choreography is hands-down the star of this show. The group numbers, particularly the opening, are electric; Cassie (the captivating Anita Louise Combe) has a well-known solo during “The Music and the Mirror” that here is almost comfortingly nostalgic and familiar. The ensemble is athletic, game, and just incredibly talented, and Rohan Browne (Greg) and Ashley McKenzie (Bobby) in particular draw the eye.
The vocal arrangements are at times compromised in this staging; the three-part harmonies in “At the Ballet” are pared back, though this isn’t uncommon with various new iterations of A Chorus Line, which is a show that requires stronger dancers than vocalists. The songs can survive the editing. Composed by Marvin Hamlisch, who is one of the twelve EGOTs in history (he’s won Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tonys for composing) the songs are alive with 70s orchestration and bombastic Broadway tags. There’s lightness and high drama, and that’s such a good thing about musicals done right – you can switch between those two extremes and have it feel seamless.
This production feels seamless.
Droll Sheila (Debora Krizak) is so beautifully statuesque and has the gift of comic timing; she steals scenes right and left. The best of the night. While Karlee Misipeka’s Diana Morales doesn’t quite have the vocal chops required to make “What I Did For Love” soar she sings with it believable earnestness, and she shines in her earlier solo – “Nothing” – and consistently brightens up the stage. Novelty song “Sing!” (featuring the endearing Sian Johnson as Kristen, a tone-deaf dancer, and her ‘helpful’ husband Al – a buff and funny William Centurion) is a winner in this production, largely thanks to Johnson.
But nothing beats the opening number, and it doesn’t find its equal right until the glittering finale. Lee’s A Chorus Line is at its best when the ensemble works as one and the spotlight is equally shared, but it barely falters.
This is a show that deserves being seen. It serves as a reminder that the power of the genre of musical theatre isn’t in expensive, extravagant sets or complicated costuming. It’s in a great writing and a great score; it’s in finding that moment where emotion and music intersect. It’s about the story.
A Chorus Line is an exceptional story and this production is exceptional, and it’s a lesson in musical theatre that Australia sorely needs.
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