Chorus Line Revival is Sensational and Fresh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Marvin Hamlisch, A Chorus Line: London Palladium, London, 26.2.2013. (JPr)

Cast:

John Partridge: Zach
Scarlett Strallen: Cassie
Rebecca Herszenhorn: Val
Adam Salter’: Mike
Gary Wood: Paul
Leigh Zimmerman: Sheila

Production:

Choreography: Michael Bennett’s restaged by Baayork Lee
Book: James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Lyrics by Edward Kleban

A Chorus Line at the London Palladium. Photo by Manuel Harlan 2-783
A Chorus Line at the London Palladium. Photo by Manuel Harlan 2-783

I was back at the London Palladium for the first time in many years and immediately my eye caught the display of a poster for a 1976 show with Shirley MacLaine. She was then a big Hollywood star and not just a New Age ‘guru’ or familiar only from Downton Abbey. Ms MacLaine appeared in February and again in May that year, I cannot remember when I went but what I do remember is that it was the greatest ‘Song and Dance’ show I have ever seen and this memory has not diminished during the subsequent decades. I recently found what the critic Michael Billington wrote about Shirley MacLaine’s show in his book One Night Stands: A Critic’s View Of Modern Theatre (first published in 1993):

‘Flashing those long legs that go up to her armpits, she demonstrated a new American Dance called The Hustle in which her head violently shakes, her hips sulphurously rotate and her body seems to be operating on an invisible dynamo; yet throughout this she retains perfect fluency of line … I could live without some chat between numbers … and the obligatory hymn to the Palladium. But I don’t wish to carp at a superb performer who combined high-definition skill with abundant joy, sex-appeal and bright-eyed intelligence. Most movie stars shrink in the flesh. Ms MacLaine, backed by an excellent five-strong dance team, expands to fill the house and sends you out of the building great to be alive.’

What has this to do with A Chorus Line? Lots actually. Most of Mr Billington’s review apply to my reactions to this current revival of composer Marvin Hamlisch’s musical that first opened at Drury Lane that very same year, 1976. And at its symbolic finale, when those who didn’t survive the audition process (the simple premise of A Chorus Line) join with those who did for a final kick or two in gold lamé, theirs is a newly-won confidence, precision, symmetry and utter joy in performing that is very compelling. This is what I remember most from Ms MacLaine all those years ago!

Just as you might remember that the Palladium had a famous revolving stage, everyone links arms in a circle facing outwards to recreate that trademark moment from the end of those comforting old Sunday night TV shows from the historic venue. There was also a high-kicking line-up across the stage to bring back memories of the Tiller Girls who often used to grace the same stage. Unlike Mr Billington I was very happy to see this ‘hymn to the Palladium’, that may – or may not – have been present in the original London staging, but it all seemed very appropriate … and drew audible sighs of recognition from the full theatre

Baayork Lee (who played Connie in the first A Chorus Line), restages Michael Bennett’s choreography closely following the original that opened in 1975 at the Shakespeare Festival’s Newman Theatre before quickly moving to Broadway. I guess much of the staging, as well as the choreography remains, and it all happens in the original simple scenery (a plain black box and a moveable back wall of mirrors), lighting and costumes. There is also a white line towards the front of the stage where the dancers line up and this gives the show its name.

A Chorus Line ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1990, winning pretty much every award on offer, and follows a group of dancers auditioning for a Broadway show. The tough director (John Partridge) wants to find out more about them than just their ability to follow his steps, and they begin to reveal their secrets. It is an unashamedly sentimental tribute to the anonymous theatrical ‘Gypsies’ who slog through this process day-in, day-out – and we all know those we are now seeing on that famous London Palladium stage have gone through that too.

It opens with a total blackout – just what happening up there when the lights come up? We see a number of dancers trying out for a new show. So what? Haven’t we seen this all before in very familiar backstage movie musicals or current TV shows like Smash (with Marilyn – The Musical) and Glee? The later often also reveal those tears behind the bouquets, bringing us a similar ethnic mix and dealing just as matter-of-factly with homosexuality. However there is such a great intensity about the opening scene and so much repetition of steps that we begin to feel for all of them who are being driven on and on. Soon you become aware of each one of them as an individual, especially those who survive the ‘first cut’ and we realise they all are survivors in their own way and each retains the ability to soar … or snap.

Creating the audience’s awareness of all this was Michael Bennett’s original goal. That great choreographer and director shaped A Chorus Line from some recorded interviews with seasoned and battle-weary dancers and collaborated with choreographer, Bob Avian, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban and the librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, to dwells on the fascinating tension of the dancers trying (and mostly failing) to become the dance.

Although something of a plotless plot, its themes are eternal so why has it not been revived more often? It is almost 35 years since it has been put on in the West End. It should be a musical for all the ages but is hampered by being restricted by its 1975 setting. There are any number of topical references that will go over a British audience’s head, including mention of a number of long-forgotten personalities of its time, such as, Gwen Verdon, Cyd Charisse, Troy Donahue, Anna May Wong and George Hamilton. On second thoughts, the modern London Palladium audience might respond to that last name if they think he was a member of The Beatles! It would take very little work to update this show for each new generation and it could live on and on. I know some auditions are now done though Skype but generally the audition process has changed very little.

Despite a feeling that Baayork Lee just has the cast members standing in the same poses and the same clothes as their innumerable predecessors, since I have never seen the musical before the high-energy dancing seems very fresh to me. From that opening scene onward, the characters register as individuals but are at their strongest when dancing in an ensemble. Because of this when I mention a cast member by name I feel I am singling them out when they were all equally as good.

John Partridge barks out his commands as the director, Zach, but his wonderfully lithe movement is a revelation for me when he dances. The always outstanding Scarlett Strallen, as the fallen-on-hard-times Cassie, expertly dances her big narcissistic solo ‘The Music And The Mirror’ that connects us with her need to perform, even if just as a lowly member of the chorus. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt offers us a suitably emotional rendition of the show’s power ballad, ‘What I Did For Love’. Rebecca Herszenhorn’s Val thrust out her chest and backside perkily in ‘Dance: Ten, Looks: Three’, Adam Salter’s Mike excels in the fast-stepping ‘I Can Do That’ and Gary Wood’s Paul brings exceptional pathos to his monologue about his parents, the drag show he appeared in and his homosexuality. And as a homage to my memories of Shirley MacLaine, Leigh Zimmerman as Sheila revealed long legs ‘that go up to her armpits’ and revelled in this sardonic role. She has ‘been there, done that’, bears all the scars but knows her time is passing however much she tries to shy away from the truth – and Ms Zimmerman’s nuanced performance gives us all of this.

A hidden orchestra do great credit to Marvin Hamlisch’s score that – big show-stoppers notwithstanding – isn’t that memorable. Maybe the singing and dancing is now a bit too polished at times, however in the end it didn’t seem to matter because A Chorus Line lives on and remains the ‘One Singular Sensation’ it has always been.

Jim Pritchard

For more about this revival of A Chorus Line visit http://www.achoruslinelondon.com/.