It's amazing that any of us turn into semifunctional adults, given the signals that we get as we grapple with our first 20 years of life. On one hand, we're told as children that we're special and that we should endeavor to be exactly who we are. But when we try to live out our unique identities, we're often reprimanded: shushed and jammed back into conventional, predetermined roles. This conundrum -- which has led to tons of psychiatric counseling, not to mention booming sales for a galaxy of ingestible and injectable mood enhancers -- is explored metaphorically in the classic musical A Chorus Line, now in production at Porthouse Theatre on the Blossom Music Center campus.
As you know, if you've been reasonably conscious since the mid-'70s, A Chorus Line is the quintessential theater show, following a gang of 16 dancin' hopefuls as they navigate a brutal audition process. After displaying their footloose chops, the hoofers must then demonstrate how they are different from one another by fielding piercing questions and fending off antagonistic barbs flung at them by the seemingly sadistic director, Zach. And then, once the final cut has been made, the dancers who are chosen have to lose all sense of individuality immediately and blend their movements and voices, so that no one stands out. Such is the ego-shredding destiny of a chorus dancer (and of most of us in "real" life).
There are many reasons why this play, originally designed and directed by the late theatrical genius Michael Bennett, is beloved by those who revere the art of Broadway musicals. For one, the dancers are physically captured in an elegant onstage trap, confined on one side by the omnipresent mirrored wall and on the other by the darkness of the theater seats and the taunting voice of Zach (played firmly, but not viciously, by Bob Simon). If the dancers turn in either direction, they are forced to confront themselves and their vulnerabilities. The only escape -- to run offstage -- is unthinkable, since that would eliminate their primary joy in life: performance. So they remain, they endure, they reveal. Many of the dancers' stories were derived from the real lives of the original cast, as they workshopped the nascent play at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City, some 30 years ago. Painful memories of distant parents and personal shortcomings are mixed with humorous reminiscences (gay Bobby admits to breaking into homes: "I didn't steal anything; I just rearranged their furniture").
The Porthouse cast exhibits the strengths of a young, mostly college-student company, along with some of its inevitable weaknesses. Enthusiasm and energy are in abundance -- particularly in the intricate group-dance numbers choreographed by MaryAnn Black. But the urgent electricity of desperation is largely absent in the opening song/plea "I Hope I Get It." These talented performers, predominantly in their early 20s, haven't yet experienced the death march of rejection that most dancers and actors even a few years older have faced. This aura of innocence ratchets down the entire show's intensity, giving you the feeling that you're watching kids trying out for a show at a theater camp, rather than scrabbling to sustain their very existence on the mean streets of New York.
That said, there are some dandy individual performances to enjoy. Jessica Cope beautifully sings and (more important) superbly acts her two songs, "(I Felt) Nothing" and the iconic "What I Did for Love." Some bracing sarcasm is provided by Lisa Kuchnen as the acid-tongued Sheila, who then takes the lead in the gently wistful tune "At the Ballet." And the role of Cassie, the ex-headliner who now needs a job back in the chorus line, is affectingly presented by Lauren Marshall -- although her star-turn dance is only borderline successful. And some of these folks ought to have bigger roles, including Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, who ignites the stage with his buns-of-titanium dancing, and Laura Miller, who brings genuine good humor to her small part. However, one of the musical theater's most touching monologues, a recollection of humiliation and ultimate acceptance delivered by the gay Puerto Rican dancer Paul, is underplayed almost to a fault by Gary Walker. Also, the comical "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" number is finally sold by Kaitlyn Black (as the boob-fixated Val), even though her voice is stretched into a squeal at times.
Director Victoria Bussert keeps the production true to its roots while conveying the chaos of the cannibalistic audition experience. Indeed, A Chorus Line was Survivor long before anyone started gulping mealworms and chomping on other unmentionables on TV. The shivers of bone-deep insecurity generated by this snarky elimination process -- all to win the prize of aesthetically pleasing conformity -- will always feel achingly real. Which is why these neurotic high-kick obsessives will be dancing along with us forever.
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