Free Lance-Star Review: 'A Chorus Line' exposes heartache and thrill of making it on Broadway

By EMILY JENNINGS THE FREE LANCE–STAR - Aug 8, 2018

A groundbreaking musical when it premiered in 1975, “A Chorus Line” zooms in on the invisible Broadway stars that make the stars you hear about shine.

It takes an army of super-talented dancers, singers and actors to put on the big-ticket productions Broadway is known for—shows like “Les Miserables,” “The Lion King,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked.” Who are these hundreds of largely anonymous people? How did they end up where they are?

Onstage at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts through Sept. 16, “A Chorus Line” examines a handful of these unique individuals and what drove them to pursue such a career—as well as the ins and outs, the starts and stops, the thrill and devastation that make performing what it is.

We all want to be noticed, appreciated, valued—we all have a backstory and the need to succeed. Such truths are universal, no matter what our profession—and these themes are what make this show iconic and enduring, even after nearly 50 years.

In 1974, Michael Bennett and other choreographers spent more than 100 hours interviewing real Broadway dancers, or “gypsies,” as they are called in the business. Based on these interviews, James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante built a narrative, with catchy music by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s insightful lyrics.

“A Chorus Line” received 12 Tony Award nominations and won nine, capturing the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. It remains the seventh longest-running Broadway show ever, with revivals in 2006 and 2013.

As Riverside’s 100th production, it’s appropriate for the dinner theater—now in its 20th year—to present a story about performers and the performing arts, and the cast of 22 takes on the task triumphantly.

The show is directed by Penny Ayn Maas and Justin Amellio, who employ some of Bennett’s original choreography, and backed by a fantastic seven-piece orchestra led by Angie Benson.

Putting to use a simple set and costumes—think mirrored rehearsal hall, leotards and sweats, as well as a few ’70s-apropos bell-bottoms—the story begins during an audition. The director, Zach (J. Clayton Winters), shouts dance steps as he runs the group through a routine, and they sing in the opening number of how nervous they are, how much they need the job, and their worry that he won’t choose them (“I Hope I Get It”).

The audition continues, winnowing the group from 22 to 17, and we learn ultimately nine more will be rejected, leaving four boys and four girls to win the needed parts. Zach’s process of elimination includes inviting each person onstage to tell him about themselves.

Each cast member is subsequently thrust into the spotlight—interspersed with isolated vignettes from the other performers—revealing through song and dance their own private thoughts and memories as well as what they actually tell their potential boss.

Winters as Zach plays excellently the part of a demanding director and choreographer, complete with the ability to demonstrate what he wants, yet with humanity showing through in his efforts to learn more about those auditioning for his show.

Zach’s former flame, Cassie (Nicole Oberleitner), poignantly begs to return to the stage after a failed Hollywood stint in “The Music and the Mirror.” Oberleitner’s vocals are outstanding and passionate, and she dances with a determined desperation communicated to all who watch.

A favorite piece, “Sing”—with which many of us can identify—rendered hilariously by Kristine (Bridget Lundberg) and Al (Jonathan Hardin), displays how nerves can affect performing, and the complete inability some people have of finding the right note.

Melinette Pallares, who plays Puerto Rican Diana, shows off her lovely voice and spunky attitude in a biting song that ridicules the teaching methods of her acting coach, who told her she was “nothing,” and also leads the company in the beautiful love song to the theater, “What I Did For Love.”

Some of the men—Greg (Thomas Delgado) and Paul (Sam Brackley), for example—describe how they discovered their homosexuality. Brackley’s performance is especially moving as he shares his story in a heartbreaking emotional monologue centering around his relationship with his parents.

If unprepared, some audience members may be surprised by the frank adult language in many parts of the show, including the song “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” in which Val (played with delightful verve by Abigail Gardner) vividly describes the plastic surgery and other enhancements she sought in her path to success on the stage.

A wistful ballad performed elegantly by Sheila (Mackenna Milbourn), Bebe (Sydney Kirkegaard) and Maggie (Annalese Fusaro), “At The Ballet,” compares the sadness and stress of each woman’s girlhood with their ability to escape by dancing and watching ballet, where everything is beautiful.

The most familiar number—“One”—is guaranteed to continue playing in your head long after you leave the theater. The catchy tune is repeated throughout the production as the audition piece to which the entire company dances and sings, hoping against hope to be the chosen ones.

That song and all the others succeed in conveying the urgency of “A Chorus Line” and the sense that each performer’s life is suspended, waiting, hanging onto that hope. Riverside’s diverse and yet cohesive cast and production team provide an experience you won’t want to miss, filled with the throbbing heart of the theater.

Emily Jennings: 540/735-1975

ejennings@freelancestar.com