Culpeper Times CURTAIN CALLS: “Chorus Line” – A Singular Sensation

By Maggie Lawrence - Aug 23, 2018

They get out of bed no matter how they feel, show up for the audition, and dance their little hearts out.  Some of the bodies are starting to show the wear, and some of the smiles are getting a little more desperate, but this is important. They need this job.

And so the backstage life of a New York musical theatre dancer comes into the spotlight. From the hopeful individuals that the director sees at the beginning to the polished, high-stepping pros that the audience gets at the end, “A Chorus Line” is their story.

Riverside has chosen this one-of-a-kind musical sensation to conclude twenty years of Broadway hit offerings in the region, and it’s a ringer.  Launched in 1975, “A Chorus Line” broke all attendance records, ran for over fifteen years, and won nine Tonys as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And why not? It had the direction and choreography of Michael Bennett, the music of Marvin Hamlisch, and an idea that had never been brought to fruition on stage before.

The continued relevance of that idea coupled with strong production values sets the tone for what’s happening now on the Riverside stage. Penny Ayn Maas’s tightly paced direction and Justin Amellio’s Bennett-inspired choreography invoke the never-ending struggle for high stakes success while bracing for failure that is the everyday life of New York show business folk.

The very first and most important “got it right” is the casting of twenty-two dancers whom one can credibly imagine living this life. (That sounds like a no-brainer unless you have seen – as I have – a cast that includes muffin tops and tattoos) The opening number “I Hope I Get It” introduces the dancers’ overall strength punctuated with occasional flubs, wrong turns, and lost timing as they struggle to keep up with the barking casting director, Zach (J. Clayton Winters).

Having survived the first cut, the dancers are asked to talk about themselves - explain why they chose to become dancers.  Zach alternately bullies and cajoles these hopefuls into revealing their inner lives. The genius of this concept has what will ultimately be a well-oiled, unified dancing machine breaking apart to examine the heart and soul of its components. Some are eager to share, some reluctant, some have a defiant edge.

Mike (Josh McWhortor) is first. With plenty of snap and sass, Mike relays “I Can Do That”, his childhood story of watching a dance class and realizing that this was something he was born to do.  Sheila (Mackenna Milbourn), on the other hand, doesn’t like this kind of spotlight, and retreats into attitude only to be forced into the open by Zach’s persistent questions. Her unpleasant home life comes out in “At The Ballet” when she is joined by Bebe (Sydney Kirkegaard) and Maggie (Annalese Fusaro) in a dream-like patchwork of little girl memory.

A very different tone is set by Val (Abigail Gardner) in the startlingly funny and bald-faced reality of “Dance:Ten; Looks: Three” aka “Tits and Ass.” Ms. Gardner nails the role of an accomplished dancer who couldn’t get the part because she wasn’t pretty or voluptuous enough. And so she embraced the answer: cosmetic surgical implants. Now she gets the job.

Nicole Oberleitner is spot on as Cassie, the performer who was “almost a star” and who doesn’t belong in the chorus line – at least according to Zach, who was once her lover. Her solo “The Music and The Mirror” is as soul-revealing as dance can hope to be, and her private confrontation with Zach ramps up the under current of desperate drive and time running out.

Not all the dancers are equally actors, but Paul (Sam Brackley) takes the audience by the throat in his painful monologue as a shy, gay teenager suffering multiple molestations. Another kind of sadness comes out with Diana’s (Melinette Pallares) memory of a high school drama coach who made her feel like “nothing” – which is exactly what she felt when he died.

The power of “A Chorus Line” is in the honesty of its theme. In mid-audition, one dancer’s accident forces them all to confront the inevitability of time and aging. This leads to what is probably the most emotionally piercing routine of the night, “What I Did For Love.”  Diana and the Company bring the house down accompanied by Angie Benson’s live orchestra.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – the grand finale, the ones who made the cut, the winners – this time – in their golden tuxes and top hats in perfect precision to the fabulous show stopper “One” (Singular Sensation!).  And just as the performers have gone from tights and sweats and tees to gleaming, fitted showbiz wear, DT Willis’s set transforms from its rehearsal room pipes, old brick, and mirrors to the glittering lights of a Broadway stage.

Beautiful work for ending the last 20 years of trials and triumphs. We wish Riverside even greater success for 20 more.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT:  “A Chorus Line”

Where:   Riverside Center for the Performing Arts

95 Riverside Pkwy.

Fredericksburg, Va.

CALL:  (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com

Playing through September 16