Thursday, November 18, 2010

"One" at the North Shore Music Theatre.
It's hard to remember the last time a musical was a cultural watershed; A Chorus Line may, in fact, have been the last one.  Sure, Cats, Les Miz, and Phantom ran longer, I know, but sheer longevity isn't what I'm talking about here.  Impact is.  To watch A Chorus Line today - and this weekend is its last at the North Shore Music Theatre - is to mainline the mid-70's in their purest form, because much of the mid-70's derived from A Chorus Line; Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Bennett, gay confessionals, disillusion and self-absorption, the sense of an endless adolescence,  the vulgar truth-telling, the glitzy but streetwise "attitude," even the wide lapels matched with the glittering, retro top hats - it all seems to coalesce into something like the apotheosis of a decade.  And weirdly, if you're old enough to remember said decade from the first time around, this singular sensation plays as more than just nostalgia - it feels more like a kind of recognition.  "Oh, yeah," I found myself thinking after nearly every number. "That's how we used to think - that's how we used to feel!"

Which is a little scary in a way.  And I wonder - would someone born after that glamorous, crass expanse of excess feel the same way?  Of course not; how could they?  But I think they'd sense the power of A Chorus Line as source material - after all, the politically co-opted, self-centered 70's echo on in the culture far more than the 60's do.  And the North Shore does the show up right - not perfectly, mind you, but with enough power (and schmaltzy smarts) to more than put it over.

Do I have to tell you the "story"?  All right - it's about an audition, okay?  For a - guess what - chorus line.  In which slowly everybody's secrets are revealed.  Now let's get straight to the review.  The "trick" to casting many a show is finding singers who can also dance, but the trick to Chorus is finding dancers who can also sing (and act up a storm as well).  And the North Shore succeeds (mostly) - indeed, given that dance has been their weak spot this season, I was relieved to find they'd brought onboard a bevy of talented hoofers.  Not quite all these folks can belt, but they can all carry a tune, and all of them can act - except, alas, "one."

And unfortunately, that "one" is one of the show's leads.  The production's big disappointment is Derek Hanson's Zach - Hanson's certainly handsome, and a great dancer, too (did we see Zach dance this much in the earlier versions?), but as the casting director of that eponymous chorus (below), he relies on flat, angry barking far too often, and doesn't seem to know how to take advantage of the sense of mystery his physical absence provides (most of the time he's a disembodied, God-like voice). It all feels like one huge missed opportunity.

Zach puts his dancers through their paces.
Luckily, however, just about everyone else provides a fine, punchy performance. Rebecca Riker had the right aura of defeated, uncertain glamour as Cassie (whose return to the chorus after a failed shot at stardom somehow distills the show's sense of disillusionment). And Nancy Renée Braun and Venny Carranza had a sweet, funny chemistry as the husband-and-wife team with one big problem - one of them can't "Sing!" I was also impressed with Aaron Umsted's cockily out-of-the-closet "homosexual," and Katie Cameron's aging survivor, and I pretty much adored Julie Kotarides as the straight-talking Puerto Rican girl who tears the pretensions of theatre class to shreds in the famous "Nothing." But perhaps I was most taken with the hilariously perky Leslie Flesner, who, in "Dance: 10, Looks: 3" assures us with bubbly confidence that "Tits and ass can change your life!"

Still, there were some ways in which A Chorus Line is showing its age - or perhaps, now that its up-front gay and sexual content counts as less "shocking" (today it's almost quaint), the structural problems in the book are clearer - and director Mark Martino hasn't found a way to dodge them (although he has found effective ways to adjust the familiar choreography to the North Shore's arena stage).  The subplot between Cassie and Zach is awfully thin, for instance, and a long monologue about coming out under fire seems so unmotivated that it basically stops the show - only in the wrong way.  And an atmosphere of tragedy does cling to A Chorus Line for gay men of my generation, I have to admit.  Drawn from actual interviews with dancers (or "gypsies," as they called themselves), the script is heavy with a defiantly fabulous gay attitude that would be all but washed away just years after the show's premiere (with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic).  Indeed, I think none of the four gay men who created this show lived to see the end of its triumphant Broadway run.  Thus, seen in retrospect, the sense of threat that hangs over A Chorus Line - the fear deep inside these dancers that someday they'll lose the ability to dance - seems touchingly naïve.  These people had no idea what was about to hit them.

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