Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s A Chorus Line Captures the Pain and Transcendence of Transition and Art
A Chorus Line, created and conceived by director/choreographer Michael Bennett with book by Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood Jr., music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Ed Kleban, reaches its 40th anniversary this year. Short North Stage’s new production captures its qualities as a time capsule of a specific moment, its relevance to the universal fear of not being able to do the thing that gives you the most joy, and its celebration of the ecstasy and sweat required by the grind of making art. In doing so, it’s one of the most moving, exhilarating shows on a stage right now.
Nick Lingnofski is a rock, as usual, in the role of director and choreographer Zach, leading an unorthodox audition process to narrow 17 dancers down to a finely-tuned chorus of eight. Not only is their dancing ability on display, they’re also asked to sort through memories, digging down to the question of why they dance and, ultimately, what they will do when they no longer can. Lingnofski is only on stage three or four times; he’s mostly represented by his voice – questioning, teasing, cajoling the perfomers – but his presence reverberates through everything the audience sees, and he’s never forgotten.
The show opens with a scene that’s almost cliché by this point: dancers working through a routine, some being cut before the meat of the play even happens. But as staged by Director Edward Carnigan, it’s a potent and fresh reminder of why that resonates so deeply and spawned imitators. There’s something dazzling about seeing such physicality, power, and confidence, but also seeing people who can’t quite make it; there’s something relatable in the struggle. This scene also sets up the still-fresh structure wherein the musical number, in this case “I Hope I Get It,” bubbles up from the repetition on stage, arising from dialogue and breaking down into dialogue again, but not directly set up.
The first act slips back and forth among the characters, delivering monologues that sometimes turn into songs, either solos or in concert. No matter how much the director brings up “reality,” there’s obviously no way actor-dancers can avoid the performative aspects of this interview, and some don’t even try. A highlight of the first act is Jeff Fouch’s dancing pyrotechnics belying still-unresolved childhood rage in “I Can Do That,” grim defiance and ecstatic, sensual joy mingling in a way that’s riveting to watch. Also astonishing is “At the Ballet,” a trio of Kaitlin Descutner (impossible to take your eyes off as the tough-as-nails Sheila), Christine Stridsberg (a volcanic Bebe), and Brooke Walters (one of the strongest voices in the show as Maggie). With an economy of words and movement, this song embraces the use of art to escape a terrible situation and deals with what makes the ballet special, but it’s also tinged with melancholy – none of these women are in the ballet, they’re “just” musical comedy dancers. It rolls through a clash of egos, hinted at by Sheila’s early reaction to being moved to the back of a formation, while setting up a class distinction between the dancers with aspirations toward high art and those without.
The cast of A Chorus Line are more snapshots than developed characters, reflections of the greater struggle to reach even the lowest rung of the glitz of Broadway. That’s not a criticism – they’re beautifully chosen and meticulously captured snapshots. There’s charm and warmth between James Sargent and Maggie Taylor as husband and wife Al and Kristine on the rapid-fire and infectious “Sing!” The snarling if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them condemnation of the industry’s focus on looks and specific body types, “Dance:10 Looks: 3,” is delivered with a wink and utter ruthlessness by Lauren Monteleone as Val. And the “Montage” numbers, exemplified by “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” cast adolescence as a chrysalis and a crucible, a precursor to the torture they’re enduring now, with an eye to the excitement of everything feeling new and also to very real pain and indignity.
In this production – split into two acts instead of the usual lengthy one – the structure and the beating heart of the entire piece come into full view in the second half. Cassie, Zach’s long-ago lover who he feels should have been a bigger star, is trying to claw back into show business, ripping all hearts in the room right out of their cages with a physical, vibrating “Music and the Mirror” that climaxes in pure, righteous dance – everything falls away except the body and the moment. This redemption is followed up by the nadir, a monologue by Luka Ashley Carter as Paul that’s a searing look at how memory still haunts and deludes us, and how much one more chance can mean when you’re aware that every chance could be your last.
Visiting guest artist Samantha Gershman, as Diana, leads the company in “What I Did For Love,” a tribute to pursing with fervor what makes you whole for as long as you possibly can – “Kiss today goodbye / And point me toward tomorrow / We did what we had to do.” Every person on the stage is up to the challenge of that song, and to keeping the pain and brutality and mind-numbing repetition in their minds and the minds of the audience. To get to that kind of transcendence, there’s a grueling amount of work, and the joy of A Chorus Line is finding poetry in the mundane that might otherwise be ignored – taking direction with aplomb, forcing your body beyond its limits, ignoring criticism, sublimating your individual desire and will except where they can work with the greater whole. To that last point, there’s poetry in the irony of the cast (including Lingnofski) appearing for the final number/curtain call in matching gold uniforms, obliterating the individuality we saw them present for the preceding two hours and revealing the chorus as a well-oiled machine of blended, unison movements as they sing “One,” the catchiest song of the show, about the unnamed and never seen star of the production they’re auditioning for, a “singular sensation.”
Technical aspects at the Garden/Short North Stage continue to improve markedly. Sound has shaken off most of the issues in earlier productions – there was still some muddiness in the choral passages, 17+ voices still put some strain on the system, but lead and duet singing rang clearly through that beautiful old building, a credit to Technical Director Rob Kuhn and Sound Designer Kevin Rhodus. And P. Tim Valentine’s musical direction embraced the campy ‘70s qualities of the score while giving it a fresh, luscious quality that didn’t sound dated except when it needed to. This production proves the show still has the teeth it needs to draw blood.
Short North Stage presents A Chorus Line at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43201, on Thursdays through Sundays, ending April 26. Visit shortnorthstage.org for showtimes and tickets.