The Olney Theatre Center has long staked a claim to musicals, but “A Chorus Line” — surely that’s a high kick too far, right?
After all, it’s a pro’s show, forged from the personal confessions and hard-knock experiences of real Broadway gypsies and arranged around a technically demanding audition process. Marvin Hamlisch’s brassy score needs squeals of power from the orchestra pit, and the performance wants dancers who can gleam in the cutthroat competition.
You can quibble with Stephen Nachamie’s faithful production at the Olney, but the show turns out to be a largely enjoyable re-creation of the long-running hit that lasted on Broadway from 1975 to 1990. (The 2006 Broadway revival spawned a tour that played the National Theatre here in 2009.) The vulnerability and the show-biz pulse are palpable as, for instance, the cast drills the steps in the great choral number “One” and erupts in the hormonal “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.”
Mind you, it’s not a nonstop blast; you can’t call this “Chorus Line” sterling. But its shortcomings aren’t fatal — voices here and there that you wish had more oomph, and a complicated “I Hope I Get It” opening that reveals the limitations of the eight-person orchestra and of the level of dancing, which doesn’t wow at first glance.
The bigger impression, though, is that most of the people on this largely bare stage seem deeply sure of what they’re doing. Reading the bios suggests an ongoing cottage industry of “Chorus Line” productions across the country. Colleen Hayes, tart and sexy as the haughty Sheila; Jennifer Cordiner, a peppy Val; Momoko Sugai as the petite Connie — these are just some of the many cast members who have done time somewhere on the “Line.”
Chief among the vets are Michelle Aravena and Jessica Vaccaro, late additions in the pivotal roles of Cassie and Diana. Vaccaro, who did “A Chorus Line” in New Jersey last year and in St. Louis the year before, has a sunny directness and a sure voice as she sings “Nothing,” that triumphant knockdown of acting classes.
Aravena was in the recent Broadway revival, and so was Bryan Knowlton, who as Paul tenderly delivers the show’s long, late monologue about getting caught by his parents backstage at a drag show. The composed, appealing Aravena is terrific as Cassie, the aging not-quite-star who’s willing to take a role on the line. In “The Music and the Mirror,” Aravena crisply cycles through Cassie’s repertoire, from sultry shimmies to disciplined spins across the stage, and in the group numbers she excels at being almost too good to fit in.
Nachamie is credited for re-creating the original Michael Bennett choreography (co-choreographed in 1975 by Bob Avian), and he effectively guides the audience’s eyes toward the dancers who are giving too much, or missing by a little (or a lot). As Zach, the taskmaster who runs the audition and the ersatz therapy session that drives the show, Carl Randolph seems almost unduly harsh and disconnected — but on the other hand the unchecked imperiousness illustrates how powerless the dancers can be and how rigorously they have to answer to the boss.
Even so, the heartbreaking fragility of the gypsy’s life doesn’t quite land here (although the anthem “What I Did for Love” is reliably stirring). You may wonder why the comedy of “Sing!” (about a dancer who can’t) and the frank “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” is soft-pedaled, and the whole thing could stand another ounce of New York edge.
Mere quibbles. The pleasure of raw song and dance typically wins out as the performers, dressed in the familiar 1970s sneakers and leotards and headbands, roll their shoulders, jut their hips and flash jazz hands from every angle in front of that celebrated mirror upstage. Dance has been on the rise lately in D.C. area musicals, and as this cast moves, it’s great to watch the Olney stretch.
music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Direction and re-creation of original choreography by Stephen Nachamie. Music director, conductor and new orchestrations, Ross Scott Rawlings. Scenic design, James Dardenne; lights, Andrew F. Griffin; costumes, Brad Musgrove; sound design, Matt Rowe. With Kurt Boehm, Elyse Collier, Parker Drown, Sam Edgerly, Christie Farrell, Jay Garrick, Jonathan Blake Flemings, Arielle Gordon, Colleen Hayes, Jaimie Kelton, Heidi L. Kershaw, Angela Millin, Taylor Elise Rector, Kyle Schliefer, Steven Sofia, Derek John Tatum, Tony Thomas, Joseph Tudor and Carl Michael Wilson. Through Sept. 1 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.