Full Review: A CHORUS LINE

by Lynn on June 8, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont.

Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore
Musical director, Laura Burton
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting by Michael Walton
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Cast: Matt Alfano
Ashley Arnett
Juan Chioran
Stephen Cota
Ayrin Mackie
Julia McLellan
Nicolas Nesbitt
Jennifer Rider-Shaw
Conor Scully
Jason Sermonia
Dayna Teitzen

Director/Choreographer Donna Feore has lovingly, respectfully reproduced Michael Bennett’s original choreography for A Chorus Line, but then diminishes the whole production with over-amplification and garish lighting effects thus making it look like any other over-produced Broadway musical today.

The Story. A Chorus Line is the brilliantly created show by Michael Bennett who directed and choreographed it in 1974. It is about the people who are not acknowledged—the chorus of a Broadway show. They are there to support the star and not deflect attention from that star.

Zack is an ambitious director-choreographer who is casting for the chorus line. Thirty dancers are auditioning. He has to pick just eight of them, “four girls and four boys.” Everybody wants/needs to please him to get the job. He puts everyone through a gruelling audition process. He also gets personal, asking each dancer to tell him something about themselves.

We hear their stories, secrets, disappointments, fears, loves and see their emotions laid bare. The stories run the gamut from surviving unhappy childhoods, finding joy in dancing, dealing with low self-esteem, discovering they were gay and wanting to come back to the chorus after struggling to go solo. There are stories of hardship, injury, camaraderie, dance and love.

The Production. The production begins like an explosion of energy with Zach (Juan Chioran) the director/choreographer loudly counting out “Five, six, seven, eight,” followed by the brassy blast of Marvin Hamlisch’s music. That number is full of choreography danced at breakneck speed by dancers desperate to be picked for the chorus of Zach’s upcoming Broadway show. You get the sense of the rush and complexity of that number when Zach notes variations in the dancers who need correcting.

Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has designed a bare-bones rehearsal space for this audition. The illuminated ‘line’ on which the chorus stand after a number is upstage at the back. Director/choreographer Donna Feore recreates that chorus line with each dancer assuming ‘their’ particular pose: one has a hand on her hip; another crosses one leg in front of another; another stands awkwardly. They all assume their pose every time they get back to the line. Even the costumes are reminiscent of that first production.

In her program note, director/choreographer Donna Feore says that Bennett imagined a space where there would not be an orchestra pit between the dancers and the audience, where there could be intimacy in the storytelling as well as space for telling many stories. Feore believed that the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival was ideal for re-imagining Bennett’s ideal space for A Chorus Line. The orchestra is hidden above the stage.

Donna Feore has lovingly, respectfully recreated Bennett’s dazzling choreography for this Stratford production. She has re-imagined the show for the Stratford thrust stage (the show has always been produced for a proscenium house) by curving the chorus line slightly up the sides of the thrust stage.

One also assumes that Feore wondered what Bennett would do with all the technological advances since the show’s first performance in 1974. So while Bennett’s choreography is wonderfully produced, you can’t help but be aware Feore’s production is bloated with over-amplification so that often you can’t make out the lyrics, and so many lighting effects they detract from the dancing. Granted many dancers have solos that represent their dream of being in the spotlight and the lighting should reflect that. But it’s to illuminate them when they dance, with a simple spot light, not busy patterns on the floor that distract from the point—a dancer dancing in their world of reverie.

The result is that this makes the production look and sound like any other over-produced Broadway musical. The beauty of A Chorus Line is that it’s NOT like any other musical. It’s iconic. Diminishing this Stratford production so that it looks like an ordinary Broadway musical illuminates the difference in the creators: Michael Bennett was a genius. Donna Feore is not.

(Crystal ball gazing here; you know what Bennett would do with the advances in garish lighting and amplified sound of today? He’d throw it all at Dreamgirls his next musical after A Chorus Line, loosely based on the pop-group the Supremes, because that glitzy show could support all this noisy sound and distracting lighting.)

Many performances are spot on. As Sheila, a mature auditioner for the chorus, Ayrin Mackie has that statuesque stature that goes with Sheila’s sarcasm and confident movement. But Mackie also realizes Sheila’s vulnerability when she talks/sings/dances about the happiness and comfort she gets from dancing (“At the Ballet”). Julia McLellan is fearless and exuberant as Val who discovers life and employment are better with surgical augmentation (“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”). You get the full picture of the frustration Diana went through in acting school complete with humiliation when Cynthia Smithers sings “Nothing.”

But there are concerns. In the pivotal role of Cassie, Dayna Tietzen seems tentative in her acting and not strong enough in her singing or dancing. When Cassie performs “The Music and the Mirror,” it’s her time to show her stuff, to get lost in the music and the dancing, showing Zach this is where she belongs. Tietzen does not capture Cassie’s specialness in that number.

I also had concerns with Juan Chioran as Zach. Previous experience proves Chioran is a wonderful actor, compelling, focused, courtly and he digs deep into his characters. But as Zach, there is a disconnect. Chioran consistently talks so fast you often can’t make out what he is saying, yet this is an actor noted for his clarity. When Zach questions the dancers about themselves, Chioran seems perfunctory, as if Zach is not listening or cares about the answer. Now that can’t be right. Zach can be commanding, but he’s also a master manipulator and has to finesse these people into doing something they rarely do in an audition, namely, talk about themselves. If there isn’t that engagement during the questioning, then Zach being kind and concerned about a hurt dancer later does not ring true. If Chioran was directed that way, that’s a problem.

Comment. The impetus for A Chorus Line came in 1974 when Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens invited several dancers to come to a rehearsal hall and discuss their lives as dancers over several sessions. Peacock and Stevens hoped to form a company of dancers to workshop Broadway productions. Director-Choreographer Michael Bennett was invited to observe one of the sessions. That’s where he got the idea for A Chorus Line.

A Chorus Line is peppered with references to people of the 1970s: Jill St. John, Troy Donahue, Maria Tallchief etc. who might draw a blank from today’s audience. Some might even feel that the show should be updated with topical references. If you don’t know those names of the 1970s, surely that’s what Google is for.

The point is that Michael Bennett created a show that is timeless. He and his creative team of James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante who wrote the book, Marvin Hamlisch who wrote the music and Edward Kleban who wrote the lyrics have created a show about the dancers in the chorus and their stories and concerns over time have not changed. It’s interesting that none of the creators ever had the same success with their subsequent projects. What difference? All one really needs is ‘one singular sensation’ in a creative life and for these creators A Chorus Line is it.

Presented by The Stratford Festival

Opened: May 31, 2016.
Closes: Oct. 30, 2016.
Cast: 30; 17 men, 13 women.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kent James June 8, 2016 at 4:07 pm

Hi Lynn:

There’s so much fine observation, history, and love for the original in this review, it’s really a shame that what lingers is this:

“Diminishing this Stratford production so that it looks like an ordinary Broadway musical illuminates the difference in the creators: Michael Bennett was a genius. Donna Feore is not.”

It takes an revelation (by adding, you’re diminishing), and mars it with a personal slag. Why do that?


2 Tandy Cronyn June 11, 2016 at 11:53 am

I have a hard time imagining A CHORUS LINE on a thrust stage. When Bennett’s original production was looking to move from the Public Theater to Broadway, Lincoln Center’s Beaumont was heavily favored, but Bennett insisted on a straight line on a proscenium stage. Fortunately, it ended up at the Shubert. Adapting the show to Stratford’s Festival Stage can’t have been easy.


3 Janet McLellan June 15, 2016 at 9:25 pm

Hi Lynn,
I have to disagree with you. What is the point of watching shows done the exact same way over and over again? Without new visions and lighting and reimagined ideas shows would just fade away into obscurity. With this show It was all there and then some!
Lights and glam don’t change the story, but it does put bums in the seats. What good is a “purist” Chorus Line in an empty house? Opening night was electric!!


4 James June 21, 2016 at 5:39 pm

The show is not 2 and half hours long…


5 Kent James June 27, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Hi Lynn:

Got to see it on Saturday, with my mom, sister, and a couple of friends.

Can’t imagine a production less like an ordinary broadway musical. There is some elaborate lighting, but I didn’t find that it detracted at all. Loved the way the production filled up the thrust stage.

We did not find it over loud, or unintelligible.

And it’s pretty well bang on 2 hours from when they get going – we were out of the place from the 4th row by 4:15.

There are moments that ring truer than others. Paul’s monologue in this production seemed to have aged better than in others. I’ve never really connected like I wanted to Cassie’s big moment, or the the long lead up to What I Did for Love. Or Nothing, but the song doesn’t grab me. The ensemble and group vocal and dance numbers were extremely well performed.

And definitely the best Val I’ve seen.

Overall, I was expecting something a lot less focused than we got. I’ll gladly see it 2 or 3 more times this season.