Theater Review: 'A Chorus Line' at National Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Seventeen applicants, eight salaried positions. How much more poignantly could a musical relate to the nation's burgeoning unemployment crisis?

"I really need this job," sing the high-kicking hopefuls of "A Chorus Line," which has stepped back into Washington after an absence of many years. Desperate times, it seems, call for desperate auditioners, and this heartstring-strumming revival gives a National Theatre audience a bevy of touchingly hard-up hoofers to root for.

The Tony- and Pulitzer-winning "A Chorus Line" was conceived more than 30 years ago by Michael Bennett as a pulsating contemplation of the faceless dancers "on the line" and all that the gypsies of Broadway endured for a few productive years as panting, sinewy shadows. Their passion -- documented in the musical on the day of grueling tryouts for a new, unnamed show -- was intended to signify something noble about the struggles in a profession where only the fittest really do manage to survive.

Now, however, at a time when many Americans are being reminded of the all-too-finite nature of opportunity, "A Chorus Line" seems more than ever about the divide between those who hang on and those who fall away. As the 17 finalists stand frozen in the show's famous, linear tableau, all of them holding 9-by-12 head shots over their faces, you get the bitter sensation of how much is at stake -- what it would mean, materially, psychologically, to be hired. And how devastating not to be.

This production is a sturdy touring version of the 2006 Broadway revival, a show so idiosyncratically faithful to the 1975 original it could have been a clone. Although it, like the current National show, was directed by Bob Avian -- the late Bennett's co-choreographer -- the Broadway revival came across as a cynical and robotic attempt to capitalize on the success of a musical that had run for 15 years and more than 6,000 performances.

Somehow, though, this new "Chorus Line" went out on the road and found its soul. Starting with Robyn Hurder's Cassie -- the veteran dancer back trawling for chorus jobs after flubbing her chance at stardom -- the performers are able here to restore some of the musical's vivacity. The dance numbers, remounted by Baayork Lee, might be slick, but the actors themselves never seem so. And while some voices dip slightly below the ideal, the caliber of others, such as that of Gabrielle Ruiz, singing the trademark "What I Did for Love," remain swell.

Much of the musical, famously, is based on the experiences of real dancers, whose words were molded into a Tony-winning script by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. (The score also won a Tony for composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban.) The conceit of this audition-within-a-show is that in winnowing the chorus down to four men and four women, Zach (Sebastian La Cause) has to get each of them to open up, because their duties in the show will also require them to emote.

That provides an excuse for Zach to shoot questions at them, and for the dancers' confessions to tumble out: tales of loveless childhoods, broken homes, demeaning parents, homosexual awakenings and thwarted careers spill from their lips. A lot of the pity-me stuff can sound pretty dated, and a few sequences are cringe-worthy, including one in which La Cause has to pose the goopy leading question, what do dancers do when they can no longer dance?

One of the strengths of the production is that many of the actors skillfully step around the patches of sugar. Kevin Santos creates a particularly fine account of Paul, the self-consciously effeminate Latino dancer who tells the evening's longest and teariest story, about his unprepared parents' reaction after encountering him in a drag show.

In the showy roles of jaded, flirtatious Sheila and surgically enhanced Val, Shannon Lewis and Mindy Dougherty pull off their requisite big moments. But it is, quite rightly, Hurder's at-wit's-end Cassie who occupies the production's center -- and who best embodies the terror of this moment in time. Cassie has seen success and had it taken away. Unlike her competitors, she knows the meaning of failure, and what comes when one's expectations are shattered and confidence undermined.

She seems to need a spot in this chorus even more than the others, a desire Hurder ably expresses in Cassie's vibrant dance solo, "The Music and the Mirror." You can sense, too, as she explosively dances out her tension and anxiety, that her comeback will require a major infusion of that irreplaceable personal asset: sweat equity.

A Chorus Line, music by Marvin Hamlisch, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Bob Avian. Choreography restaged by Baayork Lee. Set, Robin Wagner; costumes, Theoni V. Aldredge; lighting, Tharon Musser; sound, Acme Sound Partners; music direction, John O'Neill. With Julie Kotarides, Colt Prattes, Derek Hanson, Anthony Wayne. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through March 22 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit or call 800-447-7400.

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