A Chorus Line is musical theater's rite of passage. Most of us have a story to tell about our initial encounters, how the give-it-all-you-can sentiments of "What I Did for Love" inspired a romance, compelled us to take dance classes, make a field trip to Studio 54, or send a fan letter to Donny Osmond.
Twenty-four years after it elicited an ocean of theater majors' tears and defined the glittering promise of showbiz as an escape from suburban conformity, it has returned to Beck Center as a touching oddity, thankfully pure in its '70s ambiance. Though tattered and somewhat worn, it is still worth a sentimental sniffle, a nod of recognition for its nonstop cinematic pacing (which, ironically, fell flat in its dreadful film adaptation). Like an old love at a high school reunion, it still makes the adrenaline flow and the pulse quicken.
"Hello Twelve," a twenty-minute musical montage on growing pains from Robert Goulet crushes to secretly reading Peyton Place in the bathroom remains more arousing than porn and more universal than Freud and "Dear Abby" in encapsulating the tyranny of raging hormones on the way to adulthood.
The '70s on Broadway were Desolation Row. Rodgers and Hammerstein were dead, Americana and romance were in hiding, and the book musical was dying. Godspell gave us Jesus as a kindergarten teacher, handing out Dixie cups of grape juice; Jesus Christ Superstar equated the soul with narcissism. Chicago, the wisest of all musicals and the one that has held up the best, said we had no soul, only show business.
In A Chorus Line, the unqualified star of the occasion was Michael Bennett's nonstop movement, dance as confession, and song as therapy. Set in real time, seventeen dancers lay out their lives for a spot in a nameless musical to back an anonymous Broadway icon. Implicitly they are lost souls, angling to get out of limbo and into paradise. In the final vision, we have, in a gold-spangled kick line doing "One," a dream of being one with the universe, Dante's Divine Comedy rendered as show business.
Here there is no room for a new Channing or Merman to make a killing. At 69, Beck Center does itself proud. For a semiprofessional theater, this production is caviar: more than we can ever hope for; a solid thrift-shop reproduction. No individual cast member is allowed to inflict damage. As in the original, the choreographer, here Gustavo E. Urdaneta, is the star of the event, recreating with astounding veracity Michael Bennett's original choreography, which is the heart and very reason for the show. Fulfilling the other half of Bennett's duties is Director Scott Spence. Don McBride makes a stunning attempt to recreate the original legendary mirrored sets.
This musical is specifically about life in 1975, and the Beck people are wise enough to emphasize this. Post-AIDS, this musical wouldn't make sense, as demonstrated in other dubious productions that tried to update it.
In a musical that is about the triumph of an ensemble, the cast is mainly asked to make the right moves and carbon copy the original archetypes from Puerto Rican hoyden to professional swish. However, among those who do shine a bit brighter are Kristina Young's (Sheila) swanky bitchiness, Steven Higginbotham's (Paul) weepy masochism as an ex-drag queen looking for his manhood, and Lelani Barrett's (Richie) doing basketball dribbling, splits, and various explosions as the fuel that powers this tireless machine. Somewhat on the debit side are Jerry Macek's over-surly approach to Director Zach, turning him into a theatrical Captain Bly, and Mary Kukich's rather unassertive and listless ex-star Cassie.
As in a high school reunion, we never totally go home again. A Chorus Line no longer seems like the great American musical. Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's score is still effective in the context of the show, but seems no better than middle-of-the-road '70s pop. "What I Did for Love" now comes across as a shameless Vegas call girl.
But the show still elicits emotional responses: It hasn't lost its punch, yet it's no longer firsthand; it functions as a glorious artifact. What was once a thunderbolt is now merely an impressive echo. Too new for nostalgia and too heart-on-its-sleeve '70s pop therapy for jaded theatergoers of the '90s, it is no longer a revelation.
Those Chorus Line virgins experiencing it for the first time may be knocked for a loop at the show and at Beck Center's charged evocation of old glories, while those tempered by cynicism and repetition may ruefully grin at it as an impassioned relic, the musical equivalent of a leisure suit.