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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Greatness of Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line
Fully Captured in Stunning Paper Mill Revival

Also see Bob's review of The Neighborhood

A Separate Peace
Kevin Curtis and the Company
When I first saw A Chorus Line in previews at the Public Theater's Newman Theatre before its official opening on May 21, 1975, it was already a sold out hit based on the sensational audience word of mouth that it was receiving. By the summer, A Chorus Line was on Broadway, where it would run for almost 15 years (6,137 performances) and garner the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and nine Tony Awards including Best Musical. Amazingly, director-choreographer Mitzi Hamilton has now brought to the Paper Mill Playhouse a recreation of the original Michael Bennett production which captures all the freshness, enthusiasm, joy and heartbreak that Michael Bennett and his legendary cast brought to the original production of the Marvin Hamlisch (music), Edward Kleban (lyrics), James Kirkwood-Nicholas Dante (book) classic.

The setting is a final chorus audition for a new musical on the stage of a Broadway theater. After a thrilling dance audition opening, the final 17 candidates for eight chorus roles (four men and four women) will be selected. In a device which doesn't mirror true audition practice, Zach, the director-choreographer, moves to the rear of the orchestra where, assisted by his assistant choreographer, he delves into the personalities and experiences of these dancers to observe, in part, their suitability for various small roles. Cleverly, the book and lyrics are roughly structured to follow the dancers' histories from early childhood on to the current audition. Because of changing societal attitudes, A Chorus Line is most emotionally resonant when it is remembered that its time setting is 1975.

This is an ensemble musical in which each of the seventeen auditioning dancers gets a chance to shine in the spotlight in song and/or dialogue. This cast takes full advantage of its opportunities. Gabrielle Ruiz shines as Diana with her memories of a nasty high school drama teacher who made her feel "Nothing" and her gorgeous lead solo on "What I Did For Love." Rachelle Rak strongly draws our focus as the haughty, flippant Sheila who gets down to business when revealing that ballet lessons offered her an escape from the unhappiness of her childhood home ("At the Ballet"). Karley Willocks, playing the sweet, outgoing Maggie who also found escape from family at her ballet classes, sings with a particularly clean and lovely soprano. Ashley Arcement delightfully convinces us of the hiring advantage which comes with her silicone-enhanced body ("orchestra and balcony"). Alexzandra Sarmiento totally charms as Connie, the pint-sized Chinese American who doesn't look her age. Kevin Curtis exudes charm and enthusiasm as Richie, who once thought that he might be a school teacher. J. Manuel Santos is deeply moving, enacting Paul's memorable monologue about his Puerto Rican family's reaction to discovering that he was a drag showgirl in the Jewel Box Revue. Jessica Lee Goldyn portrays Cassie, who is trying to restart a flagging career by returning to the chorus from which she had once emerged. She is a fine Cassie dramatically, but falls a bit short delivering the dazzling showstopping star turn which "The Music and the Mirror" demands. Martin Harvey brings a strong and intimidating presence to the coldly demanding Zach.

Director-choreographer Mitzi Hamilton notes in her program biography that she inspired the role of Val, which she originated in London and later played during its original Broadway run. She subsequently directed and choreographed over 35 productions, among other musicals. Her exceptional work clearly demonstrates how much more than imitation is involved in recreating a classic musical production that has none of the muskiness of a museum piece or long running production which has been allowed to lose its luster (and I can personally attest that the latter did happen during this show's lengthy original Broadway run). Obviously, astute casting, a full understanding of the rhythms, motivations and values of the original, and the ability to convey them to the cast are required, just for starters.

Paper Mill has given A Chorus Line first class amenities all the way down the line. Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes look as fresh and spiffy as they did back in 1975. Gail Baldoni is credited with costume coordination and additional design. Scenic Designer James Dardenne has provided fresh sets based on the original design by Robin Wagner.

The 17-piece orchestra conducted by John O'Neill performs the lively, driving, often playful orchestrations impeccably. These are likely the original orchestrations by Bill Byers, Hershy Kay and Jonathan Tunick. The original vocal arrangements are by Don Pippin.

From the propulsive opening to the stunning Busby Berkeley inspired finale A Chorus Line is still one singular sensation.

A Chorus Line continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday , Saturday 8 pm / Sunday 7 pm / Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday at 1:30 pm) through October 28, 2012, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

A Chorus Line Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante/ Music by Marvin Hamlisch/ Lyrics by Edward Kleban; Conceived and Originally Directed and Choreographed by Michael Bennett; Original Direction and Choreography Restaged by Mitzi Hamilton

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Val…………………….Ashley Arcement
Lois……………………..Carleigh Bettiol
Butch…………………...Kevin Boseman
Greg………………………….Kyle Brown
Al……………………………Mike Cannon
Vicki………………….Jennifer Cordiner
Richie……………………….Kevin Curtis
Mark……………………...KC Fredericks
Judy………………………….Julia Freyer
Cassie……………..Jessica Lee Goldyn
Zach……………………...Martin Harvey
Roy…………………….Jordan Fife Hunt
Frank…………………………Chris Klink
Bebe…………..Nikka Graff Lanzarone
Larry……………………Brian Letendre
Mike…………………………Mark Myars
Don………………………….Jeffrey Pew
Sheila……………………..Rachelle Rak
Kristine………………….Amanda Rose
Diana…………………….Gabrielle Ruiz
Paul…………………..J. Manuel Santos
Connie………...Alexzandra Sarmiento
Tom………………………Grant Thomas
Tricia………………….Jessica Vaccaro
Bobby………………………Kyle Vaughn
Maggie…………………Karley Willocks


Photo: Jerry Dalia


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- Bob Rendell



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