Directed by Donna Feore
At the Festival Theatre. Opened May 31, 2016
It is unnecessary (and virtually impossible) to separate book, score, characters, and story components of A Chorus Line because the late Michael Bennett’s innovative musical is a dance musical about dancers where dancers are the stars, at first subjected to harsh scrutiny and criticism by Zach, the director/choreographer who has to select eight of them (evenly divided by gender) for a show that culminates in a spectacular chorus line. At Stratford, Donna Feore follows Bennett’s concept closely in her energetic, colourful, and loving tribute to “gypsies” (dancers who move from one chorus line to another in the dance world). Feore does not tamper in any way with the structure of Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood’s book, and though the large revolving mirrors in the background don’t have quite the same sort of spectacular virtuosity that Robin Wagner’s had on Broadway (probably because of Stratford’s thrust stage configuration), Feore’s production is an artistic success. It opens explosively with a group audition in ensemble performance, proceeds to sequences that are charming, amusing, touching, disturbing, and even heartbreaking, before the show culminates at long last in a literally glittering chorus line, reflected and magnified in the mirrors, and replete with dancers in gold satin tuxedos, top hats, and footwear.
I have never considered A Chorus Line one of my favourite Broadway musicals, principally because its premise—auditioning dancers probed to unpack their innermost autobiographical conflicts–is a major contrivance that defies credibility—except, perhaps, for American actors at the Actors Studio or some dance studio equivalent. Of course, I understand the theatrical reason for this contrivance, but that reason does not mitigate my objection. However, this point aside, Feore’s production scores high marks for almost every element (costumes, lighting, set, music, dance, acting) though ultimately it falls short in a central role and misses by a mile (as almost every version of this musical does) Michael Bennett’s apocalyptic irony at the end. Her production follows Bennett’s original by being a mosaic of stories and dance styles. Marvin Hamlisch’s pastiche score (tap, jazz, ballet, Broadway) is music about theatre music, with almost continuous underscoring to the dialogue, the dances, and emotional currents. And the opening number (“I Hope I Get It”), in which the desperately eager dancers express their desperation, is correctly frenetic, both musically and lyrically. The two most haunting numbers are “At The Ballet” and “One,” and both are well performed at Stratford, as is “What I Did for Love,” a sentimental but powerful number that crystallizes the dancers’s love for the profession.
The ensemble is good, with some especially noteworthy standouts: Matt Alfano as virtuoso tapdancing Mike; Colton Curtis’s Mark (with his amusing anecdote about an anatomy textbook, his first wet dream, and his phobia of contracting gonorrhea); Julia McLellan’s Val (hilariously pointed with her tits and bum for the satirical “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”; Conor Scully’s Puerto Rican anguish as Paul; Matthew Arnott’s poignant Greg (a gay character that is touching despite being obviously tearjerking); and (my personal favourite) Ayrin Mackie as tall, vain, cynical Sheila (whose long legs seem to stretch to an erotically suggestive forever). Not only are these roles danced well; they are also acted creditably, though none can obscure the fact that the libretto exploits the characters for easy clichés. With his characteristic physical and vocal authority, Juan Chioran does his best with the thankless role of Zach, an uncompromising dictator with a heart walled in most of the time, except when touched by Greg’s emotional breakdown or by Cassie’s despair. But it is the role of Cassie, a principal lead, that gets only half of the merit it contains. Dayna Tietzen is a bland actress, striking in her red dress and silhouette, but her dancing, while considerably strong in the final part of its most dramatically lyrical solo (“The Music and the Mirror”), has limited choreography (a lot of backbends and angular knees) that makes for uncertain rhythm. Tietzen fails to underline the fact that Cassie has little identity without the mirror, and the lack of chemistry between her and Chioran’s Zach defeats the tense subtext in their professional relationship.
Of course, the climax of the show (as intended by its creators) is the bravura finale with top hats, canes, and tails–a lavish number (expanded by the revolving mirrors) that seems to have come out of Las Vegas or the Rockettes or, going back even farther, the Ziegfeld Follies (without the huge ostrich feathers). However, Donna Feore misses an excellent opportunity to be brave and extend the bravura into irony: sure, this climactic number is claptrap glitzy and exciting, but it is meant to make a devastating point about mindless, mechanical loss of identity. Each one of the dancers loses individuality in a glittering ensemble piece, in which they go all out for show-biz extravagance. A far more adventurous approach to the staging would have them kicking high almost endlessly, all poker faced as if they were little more than wound-up dolls, as the lights fade slowly to black. Such an interpretation would have the number join the ranks of Rose’s hysteria near the end of her huge solo in Gypsy or Sally Bowles’s breakdown in her climactic number in Cabaret. Feore choreographs it tamely—and, frankly, the opening night performance seemed a bit ragged, a tad out of sync, and somewhat lacking in precision as a celebration of perfect unity. Razzle dazzle wins over fearful irony—though I suspect that only a few in a very appreciative audience will care.