Review Round-up: Is Chorus Line a singular sensation?
A Chorus Line opened to press at the London Palladium last night (19 February 2013, previews from 5 February).
The revival - the first major production of the 1975 show since composer Marvin Hamlisch's death last year - is directed by Bob Avian, who also helmed the 2006 Tony-nominated Broadway production. Avian was original director Michael Bennett's long-term collaborator and his co-choreographer on the original production.
...Bob Avian and Baayork Lee press 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.
...The startling simplicity of the show still impresses. A troupe of 23 dancers is auditioning for a musical. They are whittled down first to 17, and then just eight as the audition progresses and there is inherent drama in the fact that the audience is kept guessing as to who will make it into the show. We watch them learning a big ensemble number as well as telling their life stories to the director, Zach (John Partridge) in words, song and dance. The piece was partly based on interviews with real dancers, and sometimes their words seem schmaltzy or banal. But there is much more that is poignant and funny... The climactic staging of the show’s big number “One” with the cast now decked out in glamorous golden costumes rather than rehearsal gear is a glimpse of showbiz heaven, but it is haunting, too. Characters we have come to know individually are suddenly reduced to shiny cogs in the production machine – the fate of all members of a chorus line.
...Nearly the whole two-hour show is done with a black-box stage varied only by occasional mirrors (never better than in a thrillingly intense number called ‘The Music and the Mirror’, danced by sinuous Scarlett Strallen). What we are being shown, plainly, is the lack of glamour of the dance life. Fair point. But it don’t half make for a turgid spectacle for one’s eyes. When some gold lamé finally makes it on to the stage in the final number, my retinas almost sobbed with relief. The late Marvin Hamlisch’s music combines rousing riffs, the scorchingly clever song ‘Sing!’ and a central, four-part montage. But there are also occasional patches of something closer to 1970s American TV score infill... After seeing this memorable but challenging show you will certainly never again ignore the high-kickers and smile-pingers of a chorus line.
...Some of the script feels a bit dated but there are some knockout performances here – Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as a determined Puerto Rican who stills the auditorium with her rendition of What I Did For Love, Leigh Zimmerman as Sheila, who hides her need for the job beneath a tinder dry cynicism; and Scarlett Strallen as Cassie, the girl too good for the chorus line. You come away infected by the sheer euphoria of show business but also its dirtier, sour undernotes – a ruthless exploiter of dreams that, as the final scene poignantly suggests, invariably reduces even the most determined talent to just another face in the line.
...Michael Bennett’s show about show-dancers, in its blank mirrored space, lifts and quickens the dullest heart and triumphantly outlasts its gloomy era. The music (by Marvin Hamlisch) certainly does, but so do its people: Bob Avian, one of the original choreographers, directs; Baayork Lee from the original cast restaged the choreography; lighting and costumes from the original are credited... Dance itself is hymned in Ed Kleban’s marvellous lyrics: sigh at the memory of a childhood ballet class. “Up a steep and narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome. It wasn’t paradise, but it was home!”. What makes the show shine, though, is empathy. The memories and sorrows of a disparate group melt into universal human experience. Two hours straight, at headlong pace: the beautiful, racehorse effort so shines that the first-night audience, in sheer physical sympathy, rose to its feet.
This is an ensemble piece if ever there was one. Yet it honours the feverish dreams of the theatre world’s less treasured individuals, and every character has a turn in the spotlight. Some are more crowd-pleasing than others... Leigh Zimmerman’s Sheila gets a lot of the funniest and sassiest lines, and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt aces the big ballad. Scarlett Strallen’s Cassie is an intriguing blend of high-kicking exhibitionism and confessional despair, and John Partridge, until recently Christian Clarke in EastEnders, makes a suitably imperious Zach... Not everything has stood the test of time - there are moments that feel flat or contrived. And while the music sometimes fizzes, Marvin Hamlisch’s score is not a truly great one... Still, the rhythm of the show is seductive. Its best sequences are exhilarating or raw, and the finale is majestic.
- Photos: Francis Loney