They got to me — at the precise moment “A Chorus Line” is meant to. It was at the end of the adrenaline-drenched opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” after the 17 finalists for the eight dancing jobs take their places on that emblematic line across the stage. Poised for the audition ordeal to come, they pose in place and, to Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy staccato notes, snap their black-and-white head shots in front of their faces.
Where else in musical theater is the desperate optimism of youth frozen so ecstatically, so movingly? Which is another way of saying that fully 44 years since its birth, “A Chorus Line” will still get to you, too.
Signature Theatre has revived the Pulitzer Prize-winning show that sprang from the mind of director-choreographer Michael Bennett and the bruised hearts of Broadway dancers whose experiences the show catalogues. On the company’s compact main stage, the sounds of a 10-member orchestra reverberating in a hall seating 275, the musical’s own heart feels bigger, somehow. In these closer quarters, too, the faces beaming so resiliently out of those glossies seem in reality to be more anxious, more conflicted, less certain about the future.
They are, after all, dancing for their lives, in one of the great all-time dance musicals. Bennett knew how to illuminate all of the combustible ambition and terror of the audition process, allowing us to watch the dancers compete in an exhausting roundel of tryout leaps and toe-drops.
That marvelous tension has been retained in the re-choreographed version assembled here by director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones. The highly unusual effort, to veer slightly from the Bennett template and introduce new movement, inflicts no damage on the show. But it’s hard to call it an improvement, exactly. Much of the flavor of Bennett’s work remains visible, especially in the opening and closing numbers — and most notably in the leg extensions and top-hat flourishes of the culminating song, “One.” Now there’s a song title dripping with irony, given what the dancers are vying for: a job in the chorus, requiring nothing so much as the surrender of oneness.
Jones’s ministrations give a new vigor to “I Can Do That,” the athletic song for ball-of-fire Mike (Trevor Michael Schmidt) and a balletic flow to “The Music and the Mirror,” the big solo accorded Cassie (Emily Tyra), the humbled, sidelined star trying to earn her way back into the business. And the sprawling centerpiece coming-of-age song, “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” reveals anew in gawky gestures and herky-jerky shuffles the endless awkwardness of adolescence.
These tweaks customize Signature’s “A Chorus Line” to the gifts of a uniformly appealing cast without altering the musical’s DNA. Which only goes to confirm the durability of the contributions of its creators, who also include lyricist Edward Kleban and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Though the show’s format is a transparent vehicle for personal confession — the dancers are interviewed on the line by taskmaster Zach (a terrific, audience-roaming Matthew Risch) — the evening is galvanized by a surefire dramatic crux: We’re eventually going to discover who will be anointed and who will be crushed.
To feel fully the characters’ pain, you need dancers who can act — so kudos to the casting department. (Auditions to play an auditioner — what those must be like!) For example, one of the show’s killer sequences, “At the Ballet,” doesn’t explode so much as float, and the three actresses recounting the silent suffering of lonely little girls do so with an exquisite tenderness. They are Jillian Wessel as Bebe, Kayla Pecchioni as Maggie and, as Sheila, the hard-boiled survivor who’s really a softy, the smashing Maria Rizzo.
Other splendid turns: Adena Ershow, playing Val, the dancer who hilariously exposes the female body hypocrisy of show business in “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”; Lina Lee, who as Connie narrates her own insecurities over height; Vincent Kempski and Elise Kowalick, portraying spouses Al and Kristine, sweetly succeeding with the comic number “Sing.” In short, spoken interludes, Daxx Jayroe Wieser as Mark, Ben Gunderson as Bobby, Phil Young as Richie and Corinne Munsch as Judy manage to create vivid portraits.
And with poignant understatement, Jeff Gorti brings a riveting honesty to Paul’s account of a young gay man dealing with a crippling sense of shame that he has in no way deserved.
They and their castmates execute spins and jetés with a winning nimbleness on Jason Sherwood’s bare set, its focal point an upstage wall covered in vinyl that glows red or violet in Adam Honoré’s drama-heightening lighting. A thin mirrored panel runs along the middle of the wall, and a thin illuminated strip embedded in the floor runs the length of the stage, too.
That strip is the musical’s organizing beacon, if you will, summoning the dancers back to the line, to strike their signature poses and await Zach’s thumbs up or down. “Won’t forget, can’t regret/ What I did for love,” sings Samantha Marisol Gershman’s vibrant Diana. As this irresistible revival reminds you, we’re all drawn inexorably back to the line. For love.
A Chorus Line, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Choreography, Denis Jones; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; costumes, Sarah Cubbage; sound, Ryan Hickey. With Bryan Charles Moore, Joshua Buscher, Zachary Norton. About two hours. $87-$124. Through Jan. 5 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.