Friday, May 27, 2005

Chorus Line (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

Carousel's 'CHORUS LINE' grabs the gold ring!

So there is no question about the basis of this review: I am ‘A CHORUS LINE’ fanatic. I love the show! This affection carries with it a problem...I go into productions of the show, which I’ve seen probably 15 times, with the fear that the director/choreographer/actors are going to give me visual and emotional mind-burn. Fear not in going to the production of the show at Carousel Dinner Theatre. It is one of the best I’ve seen, including the three times I experienced it on Broadway.

‘A CHORUS LINE’ was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, the recognized genius of theatre choreographers. It has music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book was assembled by James Kirkwood (an Elyria native) and Nicholas Dante. After a successful Off-Broadway run, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre in 1975 and closed in 1990 after 6,137 performances, making it one of the Great White Way’s longest running shows.

‘A CHORUS LINE’ dominated the 1975 Tony Awards. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the few musicals ever to receive that honor.

The setting is a Broadway theater. Young hopefuls are auditioning for a job in the chorus line of a musical. As each speaks, sings and dances we learn about their hopes, insecurities and dreams.

The script was not written by the traditional means of a writer scribbing a plot. ‘A CHORUS LINE’ began as a workshop "share" session. A group of dancers met after rehearsals for other shows to talk about their personal and professional lives. The sessions were tape recorded, written down, and a libretto was pieced together. Their combined work, guided closely by Bennett, resulted in a staging scheme that filled the songs and book with overlapping layers. A little known fact is that comedy writer Neil Simon was called in to do some uncredited book doctoring, adding some of the great one-liners.

When it opened in New York, ‘A CHORUS LINE’ was hailed as: “The best blending of all the elements of musical theatre yet achieved by a theatre artist.”

What helps make the show unique, besides the manner in which it was written, is Bennett’s choreography. Throughout his career he used a unique style of dance for each show. For ‘A CHORUS LINE,’ he incorporated what he called "cinematic staging." There is a constant "jump-cutting" as the audience's attention is shifted from one figure to another. This draws focus to the character by placing the visual spotlight on that person. Bennett also used a series of mirrors to spotlight performers and make them stand out bigger than life in the eyes of the audience.

Instead of a standard plot, the show has what might be called a "staging scheme." This allows for each character to tell us his or her story in verbal or musical form. For example, "I Can Do That" has Mike recalling his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler. "At The Ballet" is a poignant tribute to Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie who found escape in the beauty of ballet. "Sing" comically makes it cringe-ably clear that Kristine is tone deaf. In "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" all of the dancers share memories of their traumatic early teens. In “Nothing” Puerto Rican, Diana, recollects the affect on her resulting from a horrible high school acting class, and in "Dance Ten, Looks Three," Val explains that talent doesn't count for everything with casting directors.

The Carousel production, under the direction and choreography of Donna Drake, who was in the original Broadway show, is almost perfectly conceived. She wisely reproduces the original choreography of Michael Bennett and Bob Avian. She is aided by the fact that all but two of the actors have previously appeared in professional productions of the show. This meant that the four to six-day usual prep time given to Carousel directors were spent polishing, rather than creatiing. Most professional, and even amateur productions, rehearse four to six weeks before they open but due to financial constraints Carousel has a short rehearsal time and uses the first week of the run to polish the show which sometimes leaves the early performances a little ragged. Not so with this show.

The cast is generally excellent. Highlight performances were given by Kathryn Mowat Murphy whose Cassie was the best I’ve seen. That is saying a lot as I saw Donna McKechnie do the show several times. Murphy adds a special dimension to what many consider to be the overly long dance segment ”The Music and the Mirror.” Her fine acting, as well as her dancing abilities, help flesh out the pivotal character.

Scottie Gage, as Paul, stands on a dark stage in a solo spotlight and exposes his painful past in a heart rending monologue. It is one of the most challenging moments the musical theater offers an actor. Gage captivates the audience with a performance that is mesmerizing.

Elena Gutierrez has a wonderful singing voice and nails the role of the hispanic Diana. Jessica Goldyn’s “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” was a show stopper. (Little known local fact--Elyria’s Crissy Wilczak was in the original production of the show and often performed “Dance: Ten”.) Kristopher Thompson-Bolden lights up the stage as Ritchie.

The only flaw in the production was the staging of the speech preceding “What I Did for Love” in which the characters reveal why they are willing to put up with the stress and humiliation which is part of being a Broadway chorus member. The scene, which is supposed to be an interaction between the characters was, for some inexplicable reason, relayed directly to the audience. This forced characters to come forward, speak, and then backpedal into their original positions. Having the actors“talking to each other” would have been much more effective and believable.

More than a quarter century after its premiere, ‘A CHORUS LINE’ remains one of the ultimate expressions of what the musical theater can be, should be. This belief is affirmed by the fact that the show will soon be revived on Broadway. Members of the Carousel cast have been invited to try out for that production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel's 'A CHORUS LINE' is a top level proffessional production of a great musical! See it!