A Chorus Line is the ultimate razzle-dazzle musical, a show that was a phenomenon, racking up a then-record 6,137 performances after its Broadway debut in 1975. It's also an intimate study of the tears behind the smiles, the pain behind the show-stopping routines.
Nikolai Foster's decision to revive it as the Curve's Christmas offering is a good one: this celebration of the hard work of performers is perfectly timed at the conclusion of a pandemic that saw its star, the exceptional Adam Cooper, applying for a job as a delivery driver because he couldn't find any other work. Yet an industry on its knees has bounced back, determined that the show must go on.
The opening scene is a glory; the Curve's huge, dark stage, with five mirrors glistening at the back, is full of dancers, backs to audience, following the shouted instructions of director Zach (Cooper) as he puts them through their paces in a propulsive, relentless routine; then they turn, and come towards the audience. It's both thrilling and instantly absorbing, a great dance tour-de-force.
The choreographer Ellen Kane has taken the original choreography by the show's director and creator Michael Bennett and his colleague Bob Avian and moulded it for a more modern – and more British audience. Her steps are less smoothly Broadway than the originals, more punchy, full of jumps and fast extended movement. It works well and powers the evening; this has always at heart been a dance show.
But it's also a musical about ordinary people and their hopes and dreams. Famously Bennett and the book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante took the stories of the real dancers who workshopped the show and turned them into a narrative; Marvin Hamlisch provided the music and Edward Kleban the lyrics.
So by the end of the first routine, a number of dancers have departed, and the remainder are lined up along the front of the stage, asked to reveal their inner lives for the purpose of getting a part. Each has their moment in the spotlight and although some of the songs – "At the Ballet", "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" – build into dance numbers, a lot basically rely on a solo turn while the others look on.
It's a devastatingly simple notion, but Foster complicates it by some not always elegant filming where the dancer's faces are shown in vast close up on the wall at the back, and by opening up that back wall in a sort of shiny cave when Cassie (Carly Mercedes Dyer) the director's ex-girlfriend, who wants to begin her career again, dances her despair in "The Music and the Mirror".
These embellishments feel like distractions and the power of the show is also undermined by the fact that the acting is sometimes too shrill; the book was always the weakest link, but it doesn't deserve quite the caricatured treatment it sometimes receives here. I saw the final preview, and it's possible that some of the performances will relax a little more as the run progresses. The band is on fine form throughout.
A Chorus Line is at its best when it most directly works its magic. Its structure, the way it alternates agony with high-powered performance, so that a story of familial rejection and sadness is followed by a rousing recognition of the power of showbiz, plus songs such as "What I did for Love" and "One", mean that by the end of the evening, when the cast are all in gold moving like a well-oiled machine, it brings the audience to its feet in recognition of all the joy that a musical can offer.