A Chorus Line
James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante (Book): Marvin Hamlisch (Music); Edward Kleban (Lyrics)
Originally Conceived by Michael Bennett
San Francisco Playhouse
What is immediately striking as the twenty-four dancing hopefuls both sprint and shuffle onto the stage is the wide variety of shapes, sizes, races, and ages among them. At first glance, many of them is not the stereotypical chorus liner seen on the Tony Awards shows. But once the choreographer starts barking “step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch… again,” what becomes clear is that this stage-filling collection can in fact dance and dance up a storm. For the next two hours on the San Francisco Playhouse’s rather modest-size stage, this cast will sing and dance A Chorus Line in a production that has all the looks, feel, and sound of the big-stage, New York gamechanger that opened on Broadway almost fifty years ago. And at a time when local theatres are struggling once again to attract audiences post-COVID, SF Playhouse’s A Chorus Line certainly has the potential to light a spark this summer in Bay Area theatre-going just as the original show did in 1975 when many were predicting the demise of the Great White Way!
The Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony winning A Chorus Line’s book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante seems particularly current as we hear auditioning members talk about their struggles emotionally, physically, and financially as would-be performers and their doubts if they can survive such a career in a city like New York. One has to wonder how many of this brilliant, highly talented cast in real life must sometimes have the same thoughts trying to make a living as a stage performer in the high-rent Bay Area.
At the same time, the music of Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics of Edward Kleban still have the sparkle, pizzazz, punch, and often humor that they did a half-century ago – especially as delivered by a stage of voices that blend in harmonies flowing and beautiful as a total ensemble and that time and again, sell themselves big time when delivering a number individually. Bottomline, as directed by Bill English and choreographed by Nicole Helfer, San Francisco Playhouse’s A Chorus Line is as sparkling fresh, powerfully moving, and joyfully entertaining as it was when it premiered and originally ran for 6,137 performances in New York.
Beside the music and dancing itself, what has always made A Chorus Line a favorite are the glimpses we as audience get into the real lives and personalities of the performers who often appear to us either in a specific stage role or as an anonymous member of a chorus lineup. Upfront, we hear Paul sing, “Who am I anyway … Am I my role?” and later he reveals his early career as a drag performer and being subsequently disowned by his parents for being gay – both the song and the story delivered with visceral authenticity by Alex Rodriguez. Diana sings of her inability to feel like an ice cream cone in acting class and being told by her high school teacher, “Morales, you will never be an actress,” with Samantha Rose Cardenas delivering “Nothing” with an arresting voice that expansively and intensely cuts through the air. In a chuckle-producing number (“Sing!) where her husband Al (M. Javi Harnly) fills in the blanks she cannot sing on-key, Gwen Tessman’s Kristine is hilarious as she explains in flat, tuneless manner how she could never sing, putting a damper on her childhood dream to be Doris Day.
Many in the ensemble intertwine their stories of teenage dreams and disappointment in “Montage, Parts 1-4,” singing the years of “Hello, Twelve” through “Hello, Seventeen.” There are memories of embarrassing erections in class (as told by comically cute Dalton Bertolone as Greg), of missing a mother who was never home (Danielle Cheiken’s Maggie with a voice of full vibrato and incredible clarity during sustained notes as in “At the Ballet”), and of just wondering when one’s bodily developments might finally catch up with everyone else (Melissa Wolfklain’s Val’s big-voiced, side-splittingly funny search for “tits and ass”).
But when Chachi Delgado sings with an electrifying voice of Richie’s realization at seventeen that even with a college scholarship, he had no idea what he wanted to be, his “shit, Richie, shit” terror-telling in “Gimme the Ball” is accompanied by one of the evening’s biggest eye-popping moments. His Richie becomes a human tornado on stage, dancing in amazingly flexible twirls, high leaps, and sudden splits to the floor.
Richie’s dazzling display is excellently illuminated as only a fraction of the evening’s stunning lighting designed by Michael Oesch. Abra Berman creates her normal magic in costume designing, giving the everyday wear of each person a character-defining quality and then capping it all with the shine and sizzle of the finale’s costumes. Individual members of seven-piece band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky often play in close partnership with a singing soloist, providing beautiful connections between score and lyrics.
From the moment she first walks on stage, Cassie stands out from the others. She is clearly one of two, older try-outs (the other being Alison Ewing’s sassy and saucy Sheila). Cassie saunters on with an attitude of first superiority, then dashes in place later more in desperation. Cassie is a once-successful dancer who has run into hard times; she also has some past connection with the auditioning director, Zach. That past becomes a tension between the two as the audition progresses, with Keith Pinto’s Zach becoming more than just an unseen director’s voice to step onstage to chastise Cassie for returning to a chorus line after years of starring roles.
Choreographer Nicole Helfer takes a stab in actually being on stage; and she proves in the role as Cassie to be just as talented of a performer as she is a designer/director of others’ performances. In Cassie’s oft show-stopping number “The Music and the Mirror,” she takes over the stage in a solo master performance of a host of slow and fast dance styles, her prowess reflected in tall, surrounding, rotating mirrors designed by scenic co-designers Bill English and Heather Kenyon. Her shimmering, big-sounding vocals match up to her stellar dancing as she intones, “All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror, and the chance to dance.”
And maybe that final line of Cassie’s moment in the spotlight best summarizes what we have been hearing from all these young (and not-so-young) Broadway wanna-be’s. Each just wants one more chance to be on that stage of this yet unnamed show. Each just wants to forget all the struggles and strife of a life often made hard for a financially-strapped dancer and to have a chance once again to perform in front of an adoring audience – an audience much like ours this particular evening at San Francisco Playhouse.
And as a member of that audience, I like everyone else is just waiting for that finale of “One,” for that “singular sensation,” that “thrilling combination.” When finally we get that much anticipated high-stepping, arm-locked kick-line, we can for sure conclude that this year’s A Chorus Line is yet another example of a San Francisco Playhouse summer-long hot-ticket in the making.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
A Chorus Line continues through September 9, 2023, in production by San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA. Tickets are available online at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the Box Office at 415-677-9196.
Photo Credits: Jessica Palopoli