A show that took musical theater to a completely new level opened on Broadway 34 years ago this month (July). It was “A Chorus Line,” a frequently devastating up-close-and-personal look at Broadway chorus dancers (aka gypsies) — how they got there, why they stay there and just what drives them on.
A non-story comedy/drama, it was created primarily by director/choreographer Michael Bennett from intense and honest revelations by Broadway dancers. In an informal atmosphere, they shared their stories with Bennett who used them as the basis for a new show. With music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, “A Chorus Line” burst onto the musical theater scene with an explosive energy and honesty that earned it nine Tony Awards (from 12 nominations) and a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That energy and honesty are replicated in the production which opened Wednesday evening in Warsaw’s Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre. On the bare stage, 14 dancers begin the audition process under the demanding eyes of director Zach (John Rapson). Before the final six — three boys, three girls — are selected, the audience has been treated to an in depth glimpse of what makes terpsichoreans tick. There are many laughs, at least one wrenching monologue and more touching moments than can be counted. Happily, all are delivered to maximum effect by this season’s incredibly talented cast under the demanding eye of WW director/choreographer Scott Michaels. Staging this “Chorus Line” is difficult enough on a proscenium (straight line) stage. In the round, the challenge quadruples, at least. With the exception of two monologues, the entire cast is on stage throughout with the exception. There is no scenery and no set pieces (i.e. chairs, tables, etc). Just the performers and the audience. What the dancers (plus director, assistant and four dancers “eliminated” early on) achieve — with a major assist from G.W.L. Griffin’s extensive and extremely effective lighting design and the seven-piece orchestra (the brass had a couple of “iffy” spots but settled in) — is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only do they all dance and sing above and beyond the call, each member creates a character that never wavers from the “line.” Even sitting quietly in the shadows, they remain who they are. There is no question of sitting it out while the soloist works. They are all always there! Of course, the most famous “Chorus Line-r” is Cassie, played by Rachel MacIsaacs, who pleads with Zach (also her ex-lover) for the chance to return to the line after unrewarding experiences in movies. MacIsaac presents her case in a dazzling solo dance “The Music and The Mirror.” This may not be Broadway, but it is as close as it gets!
The lyrically wrenching “At the Ballet” is interpreted by Jennie Sophia as Sheila the “adult” in the group who covers emotional scars with a brittle exterior; Adrianna Parson as Maggie, who dreams of dancing with her absentee dad; and Erica Wilpon as Bebe, who realized early on that being “different” was not what it was about. Kristen French as Kristine and Brandon Springman as her husband Al give new meaning to “having your back” in the comic duet “Sing” while Andrew Laudel’s Mike is every kid who finds himself at home in a different genre. Carleigh Bettiol is Diana, who has two of the show’s most famous songs: “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love,” and sends them home with a strong, rich soprano and dramatic punch. Ryan Castillo’s Paul is heartbreaking as he relates the painful story of his beginnings in dance. No surprise here that among the many showstoppers, one of the best closes Act 1 as Val explains why a visit to the medical “wizard at Park and 73rd” changed her audition scores — and her life — from “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” to aces all around. Delivering her message, Ashley Travis is absolutely adorable! The wonderfully woven web of the four-part montage offers visual proof that Michaels is a bit of a genius at moving his dancer/actors constantly in a really small space without sacrificing anyone or anything. Completing the ensemble are Jen Dow, Zachary McConnell, Joe Sepulveda, David Glenwright and Rob Riddle. The eliminated dancers are teens Hannah Bishop, Maddy Mohrman, Shay Dixon and Andrew Johnson. All deserve the standing ovation they received at the finale. In solo turns and as individuals working together, they make this “Chorus Line” memorable. And when they remain in stunned silence as one is carried off with a re-injured knee, possibly marking the end of his dancing career, the words of “What I Did for Love” hit home. It is not a show but for real that these young performers are getting ready to emerge from the collegiate cocoon and head for the sometimes blinding lights of the Great White Way — wherever they may lead them. There is no doubt. Whatever “the sweetness and the sorrow” ahead, there will be no regrets.
“A Chorus Line” plays through Aug. 8 in theater at 2517 E. Centre Street, Warsaw. Tickets are $30 for adults, $16 for students age 13 through college, and $12 for youngsters through age 12. For show times and reservations, call 267-8041 or (866) 83-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.