Someday Productions LLC and Pillow talking are pleased to present the following review of A CHROUS LINE at Playhouse on Park
Through July 31st
With theatre and dance parents, it’s almost shocking that there are many stage classics I haven’t ever seen – and among them, the iconic A Chorus Line. Yet despite that omission from my visual theatre repertoire, I did hear the songs from the cast album over and over while growing up; and I still know most of them by heart. I suppose I can compare it to the movies I only heard but never saw on the minivan’s DVD player when my children were young. I’d know every song and every line, but I never had that visual experience either (although in some cases, that was fine with me).
When I had the opportunity to see Playhouse on Park’s A Chorus Line, I was thrilled to finally put together the scattered pieces of the gestalt. The characters, dance, music, and lyrics which are rich, colorful, and utterly timeless – it was a golden experience for me, and I’m not just referring to the costumes from the dynamic closing number, “One.” A Chorus Line is a nine-time Tony Award-winner and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with original conception, direction, and choreography by Michael Bennett, book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban – it is a portrait of Broadway’s finest. Yet it needs not be on a Broadway stage to be affecting, which Playhouse on Park ably proved. Kudos right off the bat to Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller, Playhouse artistic directors who also directed the production.
Set in 1975 on a bare stage, a group of emotionally raw, young hopefuls are about to audition for a few choice spots on a Broadway musical’s chorus line. While the audience fills the Playhouse theatre, the auditionees are warming up, chatting with one another, and dancing in place. For those who may be unfamiliar, Playhouse on Park is a cozy venue whose back row is “…just four seats from the stage.” This intimacy is ideal for a production such as A Chorus Line where the audience can almost literally be right in the midst, with the sense of watching a real audition, and able to feel the vulnerability, self-doubt, tensions, and frustrations of the contenders. Initial cuts pare the larger group down to a tightly-wound 17, which ultimately is to become the most talented eight – four males and four females. They all express how much they want and need the work, launching the company into the opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” which raises the energy level in the theatre to a spirited high.
The intimidating director Zach (played to perfection by Eric S. Robertson) along with his assistant Larry (played by the talented Spencer Pond) pushes the dancers through their onerous audition, not only scrutinizing their moves, but also their lives. He asks each, one-by-one, to introduce themselves and reveal elements of their past. Among other things, their answers run the gamut from describing their early dance experiences and tough childhoods, to being short or flat-chested or not pretty enough, to having wet dreams, and to being gay.
Each member of the ensemble cast has their unique moment to shine, most especially when they tell Zach about their lives. Cassie, skillfully played by Michelle Pruiett, is the former lover of Zach, and among the group, has had some professional success. Her excellent solo “The Music and the Mirror,” gives this lady in red depth and dimension and illuminates the complex relationship that the two once (and still) shared, including the fact that Zach doesn’t want to see her return to the chorus after having had the spotlight, albeit briefly.
Tracey Mello is a stand-out as Sheila, the acerbic and critical (read: bitchy) but talented dancer, who’s obviously concerned about her age and who appears at any moment as if she’ll snap. She is wonderful with the insecure Bebe, played by the talented Kayla Starr Bryan, and the vulnerable Maggie, played by a terrific Sarah Kozlow, in “At the Ballet.”
Bobbi Barricella is absolutely fabulous as Diana Morales, the Puerto Rican dancer who’d had a tough time in theatre in high school. Her immense talent comes out when she belts it out in “Nothing.” Tino Ardiente as Paul is truly incredible and so affecting as he talks about his experiences in having been bullied, having been in a drag show, and his parents’ realization of his gay lifestyle. Andee Buccheri is the vivacious, sharp-tongued Val, who’s literally reinvented herself with all T&A¸ making her way into the business after plastic surgery and a lot of cursing. She is phenomenal in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” (a song that made me wince and nervously laugh when I heard it growing up). Cara Rashkin is a bundle of nervous energy as Judy, the awkward dancer who is eager to please, but layered with obvious self-doubt.
Al and Kristine, played by Jeremy Seiner and Mallory Cunningham, respectively, are the cute husband-and-wife hopefuls, who are supportive of each other and obviously in love. They have a fabulous stage chemistry evidenced throughout but most especially in “Sing” when Kristine reveals she’s a double- not a triple-threat, who can act and dance but cannot carry a tune.
Alex Polzun shows us his fancy footwork with some wonderful tap dancing as Mike, the youngest of twelve who took his sister’s place in a dance class she refused to attend. He does an incredible job with “I Can Do That.” Bobby on the other hand, played by Peej Mele, is a young man who had an unhappy childhood and covers it with sarcasm. Ronnie Bowman, Jr. is a powerhouse in the role of the cool Richie, the almost-kindergarten teacher. Bobby and Richie are joined by Val and Judy in a wonderful rendition of “…And…” Rina Maejima is delightful as the uber petite Chinese American dancer, Connie, who struggles to be noticed, despite her exceptional dance prowess.
Mark, played by Jared Starkey, is terrific as the sex-crazed and youngest member of the group, who reveals in his personal moment about wet dreams and opens the door for others to consider their own adolescent challenges in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” Max Jacob Weinstein is an excellent Greg, the flamboyant homosexual who talks about his erections in school and his moment of personal discovery. And finally, Don, played by Ben Cooley is the flirtatious and self-assured dancer and former nightclub worker.
Shout-outs also go to the ensemble: Emily Dufour, Heather Fisch, Anna Marie Russell, Olivia Ryan, Dyllan Vallier, and Sarah Warrick.
There are many reasons that this production works so well. In addition to the enthusiasm and dedication evidenced by the entire cast, the direction and choreography (also by Zoller and assisted by Pond) were top-notch. Costumes by Lisa Steier harkened back to the Broadway originals; and the staging was minimal, with credit to Christopher Hoyt as scenic designer. Kudos to Emmett Drake and Michael Morris as musical directors, Christopher Bell as lighting designer, and Pamela Lang as properties master.
I’ll quote an oft-used expression by my teen daughter – “The struggle is real” – a miserable and frequently heartbreaking truth for the fictional characters of A Chorus Line. But there’s no struggle here – and there’s no silicone necessary to pump up this production, because at Playhouse on Park there’s talent in excess. It is a show well worth seeing and I’m truly glad I finally have!
It was the late 1970s and I was just beginning my reign as a young culture vulture. A Chorus Line was touted as one of the best things on Broadway at the time. It had an incredible pedigree: music by Marvin Hamlisch, one of the hottest composers at the time; lyrics by Edward Kleban, and book by James Kirkwood (who penned one of my favorite novels, Some Kind of Hero) and Nicholas Dante. The play was originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. Tickets for the show were as tough to get then as Hamilton tickets are today. But I persevered and eventually was able to see it with the original cast. The simple sign above the Shubert Theatre is a frozen tableau in my memory.
And what did I think? I thought it was okay. I liked it, although I didn’t really see at the time what all the fuss was about. I mean, how could this bare set possibly compare to the sand dunes and Frank Langella dressed in a lizard costume in Edward Albee’s Seascape? The plot of A Chorus Line was simple. It was about a slice of life into the hopes and aspirations of seventeen dancers auditioning for a part on a chorus line. The action took place on a set dressed to look like an audition room on 42nd Street. I loved the themes, the songs, and the music, but I just wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
Having the opportunity to see the production by Playhouse on Park, I can say that my love for the themes, the songs, and the music remains the same as when I first saw all those years ago. But what is different for me now is my feeling for the staging, the blocking, and the dancing. The minimalist set worked so much better for me in a smaller venue. When I had seen it on Broadway, the Shubert dwarfed the action and the dancing (maybe it also was because I was in nose-bleed seats – I can’t honestly remember). But watching it at Playhouse on Park, I immediately was drawn into the action, the singing, and the dancing.
Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller did a great job directing (Zoller also doubled as the choreographer), staging, and blocking this monster musical. The stage was set early as the dancers were warming up while the audience sauntered into the theatre before the 8 p.m. curtain call. The directors also did a fine job of assembling a group of talented triple-threats.
While all of the actors functioned as a cohesive team and each one had his or her own special moments, one of the stand-outs was veteran actor Eric S. Robertson who played Zach (Michael Douglas played him in the film version). He had incredible stage presence and commanded the action whenever he was the focus of the action. His assistant, Larry was played to perfection by Spencer Pond (Terrence Mann played Larry in the film.)
And what can I say about the actors who were trying out for the chorus line? They all were wonderful in their own way and I would have been as hard-pressed as Zach to make the final cuts. In fact, I probably would beg the producers to give me more money so I could hire them all. So instead of kudos, I’m giving all of the actors my top hat, cane, and gold lame costume to the following: Michelle Pruiett who brought just the right amount of vulnerability and independence to the role of Cassie; Tino Ardiente brought his formidable acting chops to bear on the character of Paul (his reveal of a tortured childhood was very poignant – is he really only a senior in high school?); Alex Polzun as Mike showed us he really can do that – somersaulting all across the stage ); Rina Maejima as the height-challenged Connie shows that size doesn’t count when it comes to singing and dancing; Max Jacob Weinstein as Greg makes his character’s recounting of his coming out memorable; Andee Buccheri as the newly robust Val kills “Dance: Ten Looks: Three” as does Bobbi Barricella as Diana singing “Nothing” and the show-stopping “What I Did for Love”; Ronnie Bowman Jr. as the almost kindergarten teacher nailing “Gimme the Ball” with Cara Rashkin as Judy and Ben Cooley as Don; Jeremy Seiner and Mallory Cunningham had real chemistry as the married couple, Al and Kristine, and played off each other nicely; Kayla Starr Bryan shined as Bebe in “At the Ballet” as does Tracy Mellon as the snarky Sheila and Sarah Koslow as Maggie; Peej Mele strutted his stuff as Bobby in “…And…”; and, last but not least, Jared Starkey as the rather shy Mark, the youngest member of the auditioning actors. (Whew, that was exhausting – I’m as tired as the actors.)
Kudos to music directors Emmett Drake and Michael Morris. Finally, it wouldn’t be right not to give nods to an excellent ensemble including Emily Dufour, Heather Fisch, Anna Marie Russell, Olivia Ryan, Dyllan Vallier, and Sarah Warrick.
A Chorus Line is not just about actors or dancers wanting a job; it’s about pursuing one’s passion in life. Everyone can in some way relate to it. Hearing “What I Did For Love” gave me goosebumps and brought me back to 1975 when I was just starting out on my personal journey – when I was young and mistake-free. If there is one play that should be on everyone’s bucket list, it is A Chorus Line.