A Chorus Line

| January 27, 2018 | 0 Comments

A Chorus Line

Westchester Broadway Theater, Elmsford, NY, January 20, 2018

Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes

Profound, honest, and insightful, A Chorus Line is one of the great musicals. It speaks to the human condition. It won seven Drama Desk Awards, nine Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. The original New York production played at the Shubert Theatre from 1975 to 1990; at the time of its closing, it held the record as the longest-running show in Broadway history.

I saw the original Broadway production (conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett) several times. And I’ve enjoyed assorted productions of it since then.

Westchester Broadway Theater’s current revival of A Chorus Line—running through April 1—is flawed, but well worth seeing. If my schedule permitted, in fact, I’d like to see it again. I’d much rather see a flawed production of a truly great show than a great production of an undistinguished show. (I’ve seen far too many of the latter in my life.) Truly great musicals are rare.

A Chorus Line shows us dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical. As they open up about themselves, we learn their hopes, fears, and aspirations. We learn the challenges they’ve faced, and we empathize. The show has a universal quality. It is not just about dancers wanting to be in a show; it reminds us of desires for success in life—and fears about whether we can achieve our goals—that we’ve all had. The show’s great appeal to audience members is due, in part, to the fact that we can all see ourselves, to some extent, represented.

A Chorus Line is such an unusually strong show—with a superb book (by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, derived from dancers’ taped comments about their lives) and score (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban)—that even an imperfect production, such as this one, packs a powerful wallop.  Even though the acting in this production is uneven, the material itself is so potent that we care greatly about the characters. And even though I know this musical inside out, I was surprised at just how much I cared. Once again, I teared up when one dancer I’d come to like, at a climactic point in the show, was injured.

The actor playing that dancer, I might add, gave the performance that I enjoyed the most in this particular production. Michael John Hughes played Paul San Marco—a sensitive gay man with a difficult past—with admirable restraint, subtlety, and nuance. His performance was naturalistic. His delivery was conversational, almost matter-of-fact. And it worked! His character felt utterly real, and we were pulled in immediately. He also possesses a beautiful singing voice; I liked the warmth and the tone. He’s got a very important role and a difficult one, and he did a good job. (I can still remember the electrifying impact that Paul San Marco’s frank autobiographical monologue had when A Chorus Line first opened. I am convinced it did as much or more to advance gay rights as anything else in that era.)

Erica Mansfield

I very much liked the strength and authority that Erica Mansfield displayed in her acting scenes as Cassie—the dancer who is seeking a job in the chorus, although the director (her former lover) feels she’s too talented and too much of a star for that. Mansfield has presence and commands our attention, which is great; she had me hooked from her first spoken words. Her acting was completely convincing.

However, at the performance I witnessed, she didn’t quite yet “own” the dancing in the big “The Music and the Mirror” number. That is a long, involved, exceptionally demanding number, with diverse segments (the slow segment, accelerando, the pirouettes, etc.). She was good, but there were still some moments that felt a bit tentative, like she was thinking about what steps came next. This sequence felt slightly under-rehearsed, as did some of the big ensemble numbers. I saw the show on the first Saturday reviewers could see it, and  I sometimes felt the production hadn’t completely gelled yet. I have a hunch that, in time,  some of the dancing will be performed with more polish and assurance, as everyone keeps running the show. By necessity, Westchester productions are mounted rather quickly compared to Broadway productions—rehearsal time is limited—and A Chorus Line is an unusually demanding show.

I greatly enjoyed  seeing Emma Degerstedt as Val—the gal singing sassily of how her life changed after a plastic surgeon improved her “tits and ass.” She nailed that part! As a kid, Emma originated the role of Kendra in Jason Robert Brown’s appealing Broadway musical 13. (A Chorus Line influenced many musicals that followed. I always thought that 13, which I enjoyed a lot, owed a debt to the memorable “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” sequence in A Chorus Line.) After doing 13, Degerstedt  went on to be a regular on Nickelodeon’s television series Unfabulous.  It’s great to see she’s grown up so nicely. She put across her featured number (“Dance Ten, Looks Three”) with flair.

Lauren Sprague was a very effective Sheila—the gal who’s trying so hard to use her sexuality to advance her career. Tyler Jimenez (very well cast!), Kevin Curtis, and Joseph Cullinane all made their moments count. And musical director Bob Bray and the band did a terrific job, representing the score well. Some of the costumes had the faded look of old clothes that had been washed too many times.

The thing about this production that I liked least was that some members of the cast were over-acting; they were not giving me people that I could believe in, but exaggerated stock characters. It almost felt as if some of the actors were in a different play from the others, with a different tone and feel. Some were playing too broadly; others were playing more realistically (which this show calls for). I fault director Mark Martino, not just the actors. It’s the director’s duty to get everyone performing with the same degree of realism.

It pained me, for example, to see Logan Mortier over-acting in the role of Bobby. His Bobby seemed to be a clown. That’s really a great role, but Mortier pretty much played it all on one note, as if Bobby were some sort of manic goofball, desperate for laughs. Bobby should certainly get some laughs—that’s in the script—but it’s also essential that we see a human being, not a clown, with the same sorts of hopes and fears and insecurities we all have. Mortier wasn’t acting so much as he was doing shtick, and I winced. The late Thommie Walsh (whom I knew well and liked very much) originated the role of Bobby on Broadway; he let us meet—and relate to—a very real human being, wondering if he’ll ever make it. When Walsh expressed hopes of becoming a star, we could empathize. If we laughed at some things he said, we were laughing with him, not at him; we still felt for him and believed in him; we sensed his vulnerability under the bravado. Walsh uttered every line with conviction. And why not? The character of Bobby really was him, the dialogue drawn from autobiographical words that Walsh had actually spoken in the tape-recorded workshops where the show was developed.)

Occasionally there were moments when Mortier eased up just a bit, and you could sense a likable human being under all of that manic performing, and you got a hint of how effective he could be in this role if he did not push so hard. I hope that, over time, he can find the character better. I know he’s got it in him. If he’s able to give us Bobby as a person, not a cartoon-like figure, the production will be stronger. But the director should be guiding the actor. If I’m directing any show, I encourage the actors to find the humanity in their characters. You have to believe in your character if you want the audience to do so. (I’m not condemning Mortier as an actor; I’ve never seen him in anything else. I’m criticizing the particular performance I witnessed. There’s more to the character of Bobby than he was showing us.)

There were others in the cast trying too hard, as if they were more interested in getting a laugh than giving us a believable person. Every member of the original Broadway cast—one of the greatest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen in any show—performed with conviction. (It was easy for them; they were, in many cases, sharing their own stories.) We need more of that conviction here.

Alexandra Matteo, whose work I enjoyed a lot in Saturday Night Fever at Westchester Broadway, hasn’t yet found what’s to be found in the character of Diana. She gets a first-rate song, “What I Did for Love,” and sings it with a hard-edged professionalism and polish. Every note is perfect. But what the song needs is an open-hearted vulnerability that is missing here.

This is fourth production of A Chorus Line I’ve seen in recent years. All have been flawed in some ways. Each production has had a few cast members who seemed to completely “get it,” performers who made their characters feel completely real. And each production has also had, alas, some cast members who overdid it, turned their characters into caricatures of people. (Oh, I sometimes wish I could take the best players I’ve seen in different revivals of this show, and put them into one cast. I’d take: Jake Vielbig and Emily Louise Franklin from Pace; Anelia Heredia, Drew Minard, and Tyqaun White, from PPAS; Brian LeTendre, Luis Villabon and Tim Federele from Paper Mill Playhouse, Nick Rollo from Thomaston Opera House, etc.)  

But I’ll take my pleasures where I find them.

A Chorus Line—even when imperfectly cast—still packs a strong punch. Despite some flaws in the current Westchester production, I was touched, and moved, and impressed. A Chorus Line remains a strong show. And I suspect the production will only get better as the run continues and everything gradually falls more completely into place.

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Category: Musical Theatre Reviews, New York (State) Musical Theatre Reviews, Off-Broadway Reviews, Regional

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