Saturday, September 9, 2023

"A Chorus Line" at Lyric Arts

A Chorus Line is the quintessential musical about musicals, telling the true stories of Broadway chorus dancers. It's one of only ten musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize, in addition to winning many Tonys and running for 15 years on Broadway (the 7th longest in history). But despite these credentials, it's not done very often regionally. Maybe because of the large cast (26), maybe because of the serious dancing required, maybe because of the unique structure of the show. But the #TCTheater community absolutely has the talent to support this show, as evidenced by the spectacular production that just opened at Lyric Arts, a little theater in the 'burbs that doesn't shy away from challenges (they consistently produce regional premieres, including two this season - 9 to 5 and Kinky Boots). This is a rare chance to see this iconic award-winning show live, and there's simply nothing like it. The music, the choreography, the characters are all brilliantly brought to life on Lyric's Main Street stage in Anoka, and if you're a fan of music-theater, get your tickets now to see this show before it closes on October 1 (or sells out).

A Chorus Line is based on stories of actual chorus line dancers in the '70s, and is brilliantly constructed (hence the Pulitzer Prize). Creator, director, and choreographer Michael Bennett, himself a former chorus boy, taped conversations with dancers that were used to shape the story. Atypical for a Broadway musical, it doesn't really have a big overarching plot or the usual love story. Taking place in one day at an audition, it's instead a character study of these 17 people all fighting for eight jobs on the chorus line of a Broadway show. We learn something about each one of them - their past, how they got to where they are, and where they want to go. The book (by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante) and score (by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban) and also atypical; it doesn't follow the usual structure of 3-5 minute song followed by dialogue followed by another song. Rather the music and dialogue are organically interwoven, some songs just a line or two, some, like the "Hello Twelve" montage, last more than 15 minutes. There are funny moments (the troubles of adolescence) and heartbreaking moments (a young gay man inadvertently coming out to his parents). Perhaps the biggest character arc is Cassie, a former chorus girl and former lover of director Zach who's returning to the chorus line after trying to make it in Hollywood. But every character feels important and specific.*

this is what two dozen people on the Lyric Arts stage looks like
(photo by Dan Norman)
Lyric Arts' resident director Scott Ford helms this production, and does a fantastic job keeping the original look and feel of the show while fitting it into this space that's much smaller than where I've previously seen it (the Ordway and the Orpheum). Transitions are smooth, momentum never lets up (except when the audience won't stop clapping to let the show progress), and the stage doesn't feel crowded or chaotic despite the 26 people moving around it. And maybe it doesn't have the feel of a cavernous Broadway house (which actually are typically smaller than the two aforementioned theaters), but that makes the stories feel more intimate. I don't know if it's luck or kismet that frequent Lyric Arts choreographer Lauri Kraft was a swing in a tour of A Chorus Line and worked with original cast member Baayork Lee, director/choreographer of that tour. But she brings all of that history and experience to bear in this show. All of the iconic choreography that we know, love, and expect are there, adapted to this smaller space and incredible ensemble. 

the "girls" - they all got it (photo by Dan Norman)
Speaking of the ensemble, if the job of a chorus line dancer is to blend in and not draw attention to themselves, then this entire ensemble failed. Every one of the 26 stands out in the best way; they each have their own distinct personality, their own distinct dancing style, and create a specific character often with not a whole lot of lines. Even the seven who are cut from the audition process near the beginning of the show are all so good I was sad to see them go. But they have perhaps the most important job; while they don't appear in the rest of the show they serve as understudies, and it's quite likely that they will go on at some point in the four-week run. Lastly, it's great to see diversity in body shapes and sizes in this cast; it's not just a bunch of stereotypically skinny dancers. And all of these bodies move beautifully individually and in unison. 

Highlights in the cast are too many to mention in entirety, but to name a few:
  • Lyric Arts regular Kyler Chase is the perfect Zach, the no nonsense director who's often just a voice from the back of the theater, but later steps out for a little character development in his relationship with Cassie.
  • Relative newcomer to the #TCTheater scene, Caleb Reich is so much fun to watch as Zach's assistant Larry, with not many lines but always there with the "kids" demonstrating and calling the dance moves.
  • "All I ever needed was the music and the mirror and the chance...
    to dance" (Jaclyn McDonald as Cassie, photo by Dan Norman)
    Jaclyn McDonald says Cassie is her dream role, and she's a dream in it. She's a great comedic actor but there's no comedy here, just heightened emotion of a dancer who's lost her way and trying to find her way back. And all of those emotions are gorgeously expressed in her extended solo dance, which almost stopped the show.
  • Dorian Brooke is so great as Sheila, the sardonic almost-30-year-old, with lots of dryly funny moments. She also gets to express some emotion in the song "At the Ballet," along with Leighann Bibb Colin as Bebe, and Annika Isbell as Maggie, singing heart-stoppingly gorgeous three-part harmony.
  • Cris Sanchez gives an emotional performance as Paul, with a moving back story as well as present story.
  • Marley Ritchie as Diana sings perhaps the best song in the show, "What I Did For Love" (as well as the more comedic "Nothing"), and does so beautifully.
  • James Ehlenz and Sarah Christenson are charming as the married couple Al and Kristine, the latter of which can't "Sing." 
  • Nicholas Ohren sings and performs "I Can Do That," in which "that" includes a one-handed cartwheel and other acrobatic dance moves.
With all these bodies on stage, it's mostly empty of set pieces, except for a half dozen rotating panels that are the brick of a theater's wall on one side and a warped mirror on another side, creating some great images as they're turned and moved around the stage. The lighting design adds emotion and emphasis in all the right places, and the costume design very strongly references the original with fabulous '70s workout gear, and of course those iconic white and gold top-hat-and-tail numbers (scenic design by Todd Edwards, lighting design by Shannon Elliott, costume design by Christy Branham). And last but not least, Wesley Frye leads the ten-piece reed- and brass-heavy orchestra in this iconic score, which absolutely thrills.

I'm not a dancer (although this show makes me wish I were), but I am a runner. I've run seven marathons and some 25 half marathons over the last 20+ years, and having recently been diagnosed with "runner's knee" that may prevent me from running my dream marathon that I've been training for all summer, this show definitely resonated with me. I certainly understand putting your body through sometimes damaging extremes simply for the love of the thing. As well as pondering the reasons why they do this, and what they will do when they can't do it anymore (because that day comes for all of us). That's the beauty of this show, and the reason for it's popularity. It's not just an inside look at the world of musical theater; its themes of adolescence, acceptance, figuring out who you are and what you want to be, and dedicating your life to something that you love are universal, told with raw honesty and unabashed sincerity.* That, and the amazing dancing.

Don't miss the rarely done music-theater-dance masterpiece A Chorus Line in a fan-freakin-tastic production only at Lyric Arts in Anoka. It's not just one singular sensation, it's many singular sensations - joy, wonder, amusement, connection, empathy, and much more.

one singular sensation! (photo by Dan Norman)