Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Courier.
Recipe for success putting on A Chorus Line: stellar, buoyant cast of great dancers; great costumes; strong musicians; revolving mirror panels on the upstage wall; a Cassie capable of delivering a super dance sequence; a Paul capable of making us cry; a Diana Morales capable of making us feel; a Sheila whose sarcasm clearly masks deeper emotion; a director who really understands and knows and loves the play and can lean into its 70s vibe without going overboard. All of these ingredients and more are easily seen in Porchlight Music Theatre’s vibrant new production at Ruth Page Theatre.
There is a reason why this play won nine Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize and ran for over 6000 performances on Broadway: Michael Bennett’s play, which takes us through a chorus audition for an unspecified musical and introduces us to a wide range of young (and not-quite-so-young) dancers through memorable songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, has a timeless and universal quality that supersedes its navel-gazing “Broadway about Broadway” plotline. You don’t need to ever have been a dancer to understand these people; they are all there for the same reason. As one of them sings plaintively, “I need this job; oh God I need this show.” There’s nothing unfamiliar about that.
Set in a pre-Les Miserables, pre-Cats Broadway on which, as we are told, no one is doing musicals anymore, A Chorus Line shows us the deeply personal struggle to keep doing the work you love to do when demand for it slows. Based on recorded conversations Bennett had with actual dancers, it tells their stories through songs and montages that are now all very familiar. Mike (Matthew Weidenbener) tells the story of how he took over for his sister when she wouldn’t go to dance class “and…stayed the rest of my life” in “I Can Do That.” Diana (Adrienne Velasco-Storrs) recounts an awful acting class experience in “Nothing.” Val (Natalie Welch) lets us know about the importance of superficial beauty in this profession in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” Sheila (Erica Evans) and two others discuss the lousy family lives that had all of them looking for escape “At the Ballet.” And Cassie (Laura Savage), encumbered by the failed high expectations that her ex-lover Zach (Richard Strimer)—who is directing, or at least choreographing, the show-within-the-show—placed on her when they were together, just wants an opportunity to dance again. She’s been out of work for years because he convinced her she could and should be a star, and now she just wants back into the chorus. Her “The Music and the Mirror” is the centerpiece of the show, a celebration of the passion and the need to get out there and dance that drives all of them.
Director Brenda Didier is passionate about this show; in her director’s notes she explains that this is her fourth experience with it, and she strove in this production to “find the heartbeat within the dance with honesty and integrity.” Along with choreographer Christopher Chase Carter, she accomplishes just that. This is an incredibly personal show as much as it is a universal one, and Didier and Carter find its “heartbeat” and allow us to witness the energy and effort that these dancers have put into their craft, and all “for love,” as Diana sings in the end. We feel that we have gotten to know each of these characters, and (like Zach) we sort of wish he could hire them all. But that is what the play is all about: the fact that love and hard work might get you the job or it might not. It’s the business side of Broadway, and we can feel with the characters the pain and disbelief of not being selected as much as we can feel the joy, the ebullience, of those who are. And when they all come together in the iconic “One,” we might be excused if we wonder why Zach needed to keep the chorus so small, at least until we remember that this is a business, and each performer retained costs money.
A Chorus Line remains, even more than forty years after its debut, the quintessential show about Broadway. It’s a show where love of theatre, even more than theatre itself, is celebrated. A good production is always worth seeing, and Porchlight’s is excellent. If somehow you’ve never seen A Chorus Line, this show is a perfect introduction. And if, like me, you’ve seen it a lot, this show is a glowing reminder of its brilliance.
A Chorus Line is now playing at Porchlight Music Theatre, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through May 31. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.