Stages mounts a somewhat trimmed down show, leaving out 2 of the 17 dancers who normally remain after the first cut. That is understandable, considering the size of the stage itself, but that smaller space turns out to be an advantage. Unlike at the Fox or the Muny where this perennial usually sprouts, we can actually see the dancers up close. In the show-stopper, “The Music and the Mirror” sung and danced magnificently by Jessica Lee Goldyn as Cassie, we can see fully how amazing this number and this performer is. And, as a bonus, the audience can see itself in the mirror, a reflection of what the dancer sees. It’s a nice effect, and the mirror itself, present or absent, is a potent symbol throughout A Chorus Line.
You probably already know the story: Set at an audition for gypsies to back up the stars of a new Broadway musical, the year is 1975, and thankfully it hasn’t been updated. Based on interviews with chorus dancers conducted by director Michael Bennett, the show consists of a series of self-revealing speeches by the finalists interspersed with song and dance. The characters often veer uncomfortably close to stereotype, but A Chorus Line isn’t a show that should be analyzed too deeply, just enjoyed for what it is, and the audience I was in absolutely adored it. One woman in front of me leaped to her feet at the end of Cassie’s big number in a solo standing ovation, and she and her companion spent the evening nearly weeping with excitement. So, okay, if you are a groupie, then this is a production you will want to see because it is, as Stages shows always are, nearly flawless in its execution.
The prerecorded music is (obviously) never off key, but a couple of the singers are, and there were a few refreshing stumbles in the dance steps (and not where this group of pros is pretending to be having trouble learning the routine). I liked the human touch because my biggest complaint with Stages is that it’s always too perfect. Singing ability varies from outstanding to okay, with Jessica Vaccaro (Diana) at the “amazing” end of the scale and Kimberly Wolff (Sheila) and Leonard Sullivan (Richie) at the other end of the spectrum. Sullivan’s problem isn’t pitch so much as it is enunciation, and Wolff may just have been having an off-night. However, Wolff is a terrific dancer and Sullivan’s character, while not especially well-developed, adds some lightness to the proceedings. Richie always gets a laugh from local audiences when he gives his hometown as “Herculaneum, Missouri.”
The shepherd of this unruly flock is Zach (David Elder) who will be directing the new show, and he is a tough taskmaster, especially on his former lover, Cassie, who he believes is making a mistake trying to get back in the chorus when she has been a featured dancer in the past. After an ill-fated try at Hollywood; however, she needs a job and she wants it to be this one. And so do they all. The opening number, “I Hope I Get It” leads the audience to the first cut when seven dancers are told to leave. The remaining 15 are the cast of A Chorus Line. The ‘70s were a troubled time for Broadway dancers/singers. The days of the extravaganza were mostly over, except for revivals, so chorus boys and girls had to be able to sing and dance both in the smaller casts hired for what little work there was. A number of theatres had closed, the economy was in recession, and postmodern musicals like Hair, Godspell, Oh! Calcutta, and Jesus Christ, Superstar had upended the traditional format of the “Broadway musical comedy.”
There is no intermission, nor should there be, but some of the stories seem to ramble on too long so a running time of nearly two hours is a bit daunting. Paul’s (William Carlos Angulo) tale is terribly sad, but by the time he gets to the end of it and Zach rushes down to give him a hug, I’d kind of lost interest. (By the way, anyone who can run down those weird stairs in the Reim auditorium in the dark has my automatic respect.) As amusing as it is, Val’s (Vanessa Sonon) paean to female body image insecurity (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”) could be shorter too. How many times can you say “tits and ass” and get laughs? And considering she tells us she had $87 when she started getting work done to achieve those attributes, how did she pay for her surgeries? But I digress.
“What I Did For Love,” the penultimate number by Diana (who looks and sounds like she might have played Annie not all that long ago) and the Company remains a beautiful song, as does “At the Ballet” (Sheila, Judy and Maggie—the latter two played by Laura E. Taylor and Laura Oldham) with its delicately balanced harmonies. There is a lot of humor among the pain and a career threatening injury to one dancer makes everyone else all pensive about their career choice. Some of the jokes though go pretty deep. For example, “Judy Turner,” kids that her real name is “Lana Turner.” Lana Turner was actually called “Judy” pre-stardom. Paul refers to looking like “Anna May Wong” in a sleazy show he once did. Who? She was a footnote even in 1975, at least to the general audience.
Now that I’ve picked my nits, this is a perfectly fine production, well directed by Michael Hamilton recreating Michael Bennett’s vision, as does Kim Shriver with Bennett’s choreography. The set and lights are excellent (Mark Halpin and Matthew McCarthy) and the show looks lovely. Should you want to see A Chorus Line (or, if you’re a musical theatre fan, more likely, see it again) you’ll need to hurry. The first two weeks are, we were told in the pre-show presentation, already sold out. This is also the only show Stages has presented three times, and during its 1988 run, allowed the company to post its first “Sold Out” signs in the lobby, so for Jack Lane and Michael Hamilton (Executive Producer and Artistic Director, respectively) it is the “ONE” to with which to kick off the celebration of Stages’ 25th anniversary season.
Box office phone numbers are 314-821-2407 (Kirkwood and Chesterfield locations). For more information, visit www.stagesstlouis.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT