Friday, January 27, 2012

With a Kick of Authenticity, This 'Chorus Line' is One Singular Sensation -- Theater Review

Theater Review

A Chorus Line
produced by and presented at the
Paramount Theatre, Aurora, IL
Thru February 5
@@@@1/2

A Chorus Line must be a tricky show to cast. For while it would seem obvious to select performers who can sing, dance and act wonderfully--and look great in  leotards or men's dance uniforms--those with the polish, poise and vocal panache that often defines Broadway-caliber talent may inherently bring an air at odds with the story of aspirants auditioning to primarily dance in (for most) their first Broadway show. And one set in the mid-1970s at that.

Although I don't pretend to have a clear barometer of what qualifies someone to work literally on Broadway--as anyone who can sing in tune impresses the hell out of me--I've seen enough shows in New York to think I can perceive what distinguishes practitioners at that level from talented people who participate in community theater (for example and in general).

I've also seen enough shows at various levels around Chicagoland to confidently suggest that troupes/venues such as Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Light Opera Works, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Northlight Theatre and others often produce top-quality musicals with performers clearly capable of working on Broadway (and/or those who already have).

While the Paramount Theatre--a large, ornate Art Deco venue designed by Rapp & Rapp in 1931--has been presenting short runs of touring musicals for years, last fall they joined the ranks of regional theaters producing their own slate of subscription-series shows. Reviews of My Fair Lady there were phenomenal, but Aurora is a good hike from Skokie, so A Chorus Line is the first such show I've seen under Artistic Director Jim Corti.

I got a walk-up ticket more than covered by the $45 I won at the Hollywood Casino across the way and except for the 19-piece orchestra sounding a bit too soft even in the 6th row--it might be my hearing, but I doubt it could be that much worse than the numerous octogenarians around me--I thoroughly enjoyed the show from beginning to end. Even more so than the Broadway tour edition I'd seen in Chicago in 2009.

Early on, perhaps because I had read that some cast members had performed in the most recent Chorus Line revival on Broadway and/or the national tour, I tried to gauge how the ensemble might compare to what I'd expect to see on the Great White Way. And my first thought was that while no one was obviously deficient, the cast as a whole just didn't seem "Broadway caliber."

But then, the thought that I tried to convey in the first paragraph dawned on me. I wasn't supposed to see the people onstage as obvious Broadway stars; I was supposed to believe--while being thoroughly entertained--that they were upstarts, portraying the insecurities one might expect as they are called upon to offer autobiographical exposition.

I realize this may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean it to be belittling, as all the singing was strong and the dancing excellent. Nicole Hren made for an endearing Val, Pegah Kadkhodaian, as Diana Morales, delivered excellent renditions of "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love," Broadway cast vet Jessica Lee Goldyn dazzled in her dance solo on "The Music and The Mirror" and Kristina Larson-Hauk, a real Rockette, imbued the sexy Sheila with the right amount of sass and vulnerability.

And though he didn't have a vocal solo, Jay Reynolds Jr. as Paul probably did the most to instill this production with the sort of inherent believability that made it stand out.

A Chorus Line was one of the first musicals I ever saw, in an early touring production when I wasn't yet 10. (If you think songs about "tits and ass" might not be appropriate for someone so young, well, I was also taken to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.) So I have long thought the material--conceived by Michael Bennett with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by James Kleban--was first-rate, but have never been completely wowed by local productions nor the 2009 tour.

Without a lead character, it can be a challenging show to calibrate correctly, as it is so dependent on the ensemble, deceptively rag-tag at first but needed to congeal perfectly by the time the show-stopping finale of "One" rolls around. Under the direction of Mitzi Hamilton, who inspired the character of Val, performed in London and on Broadway and has helmed 35+ productions, this production might not quite be the equal of Broadway's best, but of those I've seen, it was a Paramount rendition.

Here's a video to give you a taste:

B-Roll for "A Chorus Line" from Shiloh Studio on Vimeo.

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As a corollary, I recently watched the pilot episode of NBC's Smash (on Comcast On-Demand, as the broadcast premiere isn't until Feb. 6). Being a big Broadway fan and interested in backstage stories, I found it worth exploring and there were some nice songs from the composers of Hairspray. But most of the characters--with the caveat that pilots have to introduce them all, quickly--came off as clich├ęs. In watching it, I couldn't help but think how much realistic A Chorus Line seems in terms of a glimpse behind the curtain. Smash, whose pilot I'd give @@@, will need to get considerably better to live up to its title.

Also, having recently seen Sondheim's Follies, for which Michael Bennett was the original choreographer, I newly considered the connection between that "backstage show" and A Chorus Line. While it might seem interesting to do a Chorus Line "whatever happened to" sequel, it dawned on me that Follies already covers similar ground, perhaps not so coincidentally.

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