It sounds like a recipe for disaster

"A Chorus Line" in a dinner theater.

Derived from the actual stories of those dancing "gypsies" who traipse gallantly from Broadway musical to Broadway musical until their pins give out, that champ of long-running shows would seem to be firmly rooted in the spirit and show business realities of New York.

While the country may be crawling with cute little red-haired girls dying for a chance to play "Annie," "A Chorus Line" demands performers who've sweated through years of dance classes, dragged themselves from audition to audition, and acquired in the process that curious aura of desperation and bravura that invariably overtakes performers in New York. Futhermore, dinner theaters -- often short on facilities, budget and sometimes simple talent -- have a distressing tendency to whittle down Broadway musicals to shadows of their former selves.

None of which -- or at least, very little of which -- applies to the Harlequin Dinner Theatre's production of "A Chorus Line." The Harlequin is the first dinner theater in the country to present the musical, although it is hardly likely to be the last. Perhaps mindful of the honor, it has come up with a surprisingly confident, often exciting rendering of a show that continues, after 10 years, to draw healthy crowds on Broadway.

Just how the dinner theater trade will take to the evening remains to be seen. "A Chorus Line," lest time dull memory, is reasonably gritty as it explores the psyches and life stories of 17 finalists at a dance audition for an impending musical. Zach (Andy Umberger), the director, doesn't merely want to see how the various candidates dance, but he intends to get to know them personally. Firing questions relentlessly from the back of the auditorium, he elicits from them some fairly candid sexual and psychological confessions.

The Harlequin isn't flinching, however. Under the direction of William Wesbrooks, the cast treats the material forthrightly, and in doing so, renews one's hope that dinner theaters needn't deal eternally in pablum. In fact, the rawest passage -- one dancer's sad account of his tawdry experiences as a female impersonator -- is the most moving. Matthew C. Pedersen delivers it with unvarnished simplicity; the performance is remarkable in its self-control and honesty.

Actually, there are an astonishing number of likable performances in the cast of 24. Judy Walstrum is perky as Val, who discovered that the nips and tucks of plastic surgery never hurt a girl's career. Apryll Chadderdon handles the wisecracks of aging Sheila with tongue properly in cheek. Jeri Lynn Sager acquits herself strongly by two of the show's best songs, "Nothing" and that anthemn to the dance, "What I Did for Love." And Rebecca Rhodes and Steven M. Schultz are engaging as the wife who can't carry a tune and the husband who tries to carry it for her. If the dancing, vigorously choreographed by Mitzi Maxwell, isn't always as finely honed as it could be, this is, after all, an audition we're presumably watching; some of the aspirants are supposed to be surer on their feet than others.

Only with the performance of Shari Krikorian does the Harlequin production suffer a distinct letdown. Krikorian plays Cassie, the dancer who's too good for the chorus line, but not good enough for stardom, and has come limping back from Hollywood, hoping for the chance to start all over again. Krikorian gives it a brave try, but she doesn't project that extra edge of personality the character is suposed to have, and her big solo, "The Music and the Mirror," fizzles when it should sizzle.

Still, the production manages to create a palpable sense of backstage authenticity and real camaraderie. And when all the performers, garbed in silver top hats and tails, come together for the synchronized finale, "One," it is with the stride and panache of true professionals. By that time, I suspect, you will have forgotten you are watching a dinner theater production of "A Chorus Line." You will simply be watching the show itself. And you will be caught up in it. A Chorus Line, by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante; music by Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics, Edward Kleban. Sets, James Bush; costumes, Karen Hummel; lighting, David Finley; choreography, Mitzi Maxwell; musical direction, Thomas Tumulty. With Apryll Chadderdon, Maria Codas, Ray Hatch, Shari Krikorian, Matthew C. Pedersen, Rebecca Rhodes, Jeri Lynn Sager, Steven M. Schultz, Andy Umberger, Judy Walstrum. At the Harlequin Dinner Theatre indefinitely.