“A classic Broadway musical for a new generation,” goes the pitch. The Kids are certainly familiar with the tunes; Glee has bred familiarity (and perhaps contempt) of this show, like other dusty Broadway staples, with its covers of Sing! and show-stopping ballad What I Did For Love illegally downloaded to iPods everywhere.
But they probably haven’t seen a piece of theatre like this before. For a start, they have to sit through this one-act wonder, a singular sensation to be sure, for nearly two hours — without an ad break. This show is from an era where they used to make movies based on stage shows, rather than the other way around. Stripped of the dazzling sets and shimmering costumes of most commercial theatre fare, it looks more high school musical than anything you might be prepared to spend $100-plus on a ticket for.
What is really captivating about A Chorus Line — and still is, almost four decades after it began its 15-year, 6137-show Broadway run — is the ambition, as naked as the staging. It’s the timeless tale of high kicks and bright lights and standing ovations and defying absurd odds and all sense of reality to actually Make It, the childhood dreams of most girls and a bunch of boys too. It’s about the palpable sense that a cast of indecently talented young performers, many of them at least, live this make-or-break experience on stage and off. The method acting, that’s the really thrilling part.
I wonder if James Maxfield (Mike) jealously looked on a dance class taken by a sibling (“now married and fat”?) and thought I Can Do That; no doubt Debora Krizak (Sheila), Monique Sallé (Bebe) or Stephanie Grigg (Maggie) were escaping something in the beautiful things At The Ballet (“it wasn’t paradise, but it was home”); Sian Johnson (Kristine) probably worried a performing weakness couldn’t be overcome (“I could never really …”); Hayley Winch (Val) may have thought at one point or another she didn’t have the necessary, err, attributes to succeed (Dance: Ten; Looks: Three; “and I’m still on unemployment”). The notes of opening number I Hope I Get It drip with starry-eyed desperation (“I really need this job, please God I need this job”).
And that, unlike some of Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy orchestration, never really gets old. Imported director/choreographer Baayork Lee — who created the role of Connie in the original 1975 production — is almost painstakingly faithful to the original vision of Michael Bennett, director and choreographer of the Tony-showered show. Resisting the temptation to vamp up the movement and glitz up the setting (or restrained by the budget; regardless), Lee puts the full weight of this production on her cast to deliver. Nobody, with a couple of minor exceptions, is intimidated under an unforgiving spotlight.
Winch, in fact, certainly had “tits and ass” but a fairly weak vocal range, it must be said. Kurt Douglas overplayed Richie’s bravado. But of the 17 featured performers that bravely line up down stage for much of the show, they deliver near-faultless performances. To unfairly single out three: Krizak channels Samantha Jones into the fabulously 30-something Sheila, drawing laughs with just the curl of a lip. As Cassie, facing a stalled career and a former flame, Anita Louise Combe shows serious acting chops and an awesome belt in the mesmerising The Music And The Mirror. And Euan Doidge, an 18-year-old from Mount Gambier, stops the show not with his voice or his moves (stellar, both) but with the heartbreaking monologue on sexual identity and isolation. “One day,” says Paul, tears welling, “I looked at myself in the mirror and said: you’re 14 years old and you’re a faggot. What are you going to do with your life?” Doidge’s powerful delivery evokes the sort of unvarnished pathos so rare in this sort of theatre.
Joshua Horner (the judge from Dancing With The Stars … no, the nice one; the bitchy one is touring with Annie) is little more than a disembodied voice as demanding-but-compassionate talent scout Zach putting the wannabes through their paces. Naturally, when he arrives on stage he high-kicks with the best of them. Todd McKenney himself couldn’t disagree.
Maybe these steps don’t thrill like they used to. But it’s performed here with such precision, by a cast so perfectly synchronised (helped, no doubt, but a short season in Adelaide), it can’t be any less entertaining than it was to the first New York audiences. A Chorus Line was not simply a cultural landmark, endlessly imitated since, but a master template for crafting contemporary musical theatre.
Give it your attention, do I really have to mention …
The details: A Chorus Line plays Her Majesty’s Theatre until March 10. Tickets via Ticketek.