A Chorus Line Production Images

Half a lifetime ago I watched the first night of A Chorus Line from the grand circle at Drury Lane. Nothing in musical theatre had ever matched its simple, Brechtian combination of confessional psychotherapy, heart-breaking audition, backstage lore, and choreographic patterning of dance moves and the chorus line.

There might be another way of doing the show conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett for the Public Theater in New York (that powerhouse's second big long-running Broadway success, following another money-spinning trail-blazer, Hair), but there isn't a better one. So, sitting in the Palladium dress circle was distinctly déjà vu.

And while this new version, directed and re-staged by two of Bennett's key collaborators, Bob Avian and Baayork Lee, presses all the right buttons and creates all the right shivers, it doesn't have the spark, freshness and killer knock-out punch - or indeed the requisite eeriness - of a Sheffield Crucible revival eight years ago.

Marvin Hamlisch's music, which combines lyrical yearning with brutal functionalism and slap-down theatricality, is as brilliant and infectious as ever, Edward Kleban's lyrics articulate the dancers' individual stories of hope and disappointment with sharp lucidity, and the book of James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante manages to suggest urgency in the process while time itself is suspended in rehearsal limbo.

It's terribly poignant, of course, that all of these artists have passed on: the visionary Bennett (who died of Aids, aged just 44, ridiculously under-fulfilled), Kleban, Dante, Kirkwood and now Hamlisch; and so have the legendary Theoni V Aldredge (costumes) and Tharon Musser (lighting). This show, arriving on the back of an Australian revival, is their legacy and their memorial. Maybe that's a little bit of the problem. And the sound's not all that great.

In the casting, the girls come off a whole lot better than the boys, who are rather pallid, with the exception of John Partridge's extremely unpleasant and demanding director, Zach, shouting his orders from the back of the stalls and breaking down his former girlfriend, Cassie (Scarlett Strallen), whose career has nose-dived to the point where all she wants to do is get back in the chorus line.

Cassie, a role based partly on the life and career of Donna McKechnie (who played it, and then married Bennett, briefly) is a leggy portfolio of anxieties, pain and boiling resentment, all of which Strallen does superbly without quite translating it into her big routine, "The Music and the Mirror" (not the show-stopper it was with Josefina Gabrielle in Sheffield or Petra Siniawski at the Lane).

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt scores heavily as Diana, laying down the fulsome ballad "What I Did For Love" with real gusto and pizazz, and the gloriously statuesque Leigh Zimmerman steals every scene she gooses with a quip or a slouch as the seen-it-all nearly veteran Sheila.

Zach whittles the original turn-out of 30 dancers down to 17 who then contest the "four" plus "four" needed to provide back-up to the show's unseen star, "One Singular Sensation." This great number gives the chorus line its big moment, as they parade like glittering automatons in an ironic suppression of the individuality that has been teased out of each one of them over two uninterrupted hours.

Photo: Francis Loney