A Chorus Line Conceived and Originally Choreographed and Directed by Michael Bennett. Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Bob Avian. Choreography Re-Staged by Baayork Lee. Originally Co-Choreographed by Bob Avian. Scenic design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by Theoni V. Aldredge. Lighting design by Tharon Musser; Adapted by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Music direction and supervision by Patrick Vaccariello. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Bill Byers & Hershy Kay. Vocal Arrangements by Don Pippin. Cast: Ken Alan, Brad Anderson, Michelle Aravena, David Baum, Michael Berresse, Mike Cannon, E. Clayton Cornelious, Natlaine Cortez, Charlotte d'Amboise, Mara Davi, Joey Dudding, Pamela Fabello, Lyndy Franklin, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Deidre Goodwin, Tyler Hanes, Nadine Isenegger, James T. Lane, Lorin Latarro, Paul McGill, Heather Parcells, Michael Paternostro, Alisan Porter, Jeffrey Schecter, Yuka Takara, Jason Tam, Grant Turner, Chryssie Whitehead, Tony Yazbeck.
The spangles and sequins, the twinkling lights, the shimmering performers wearing smiles and costumes sparkling with enough gold to buy out Fort Knox... These images are indelible fixtures of A Chorus Line, the groundbreaking 1975 show that's become all but synonymous with the idea of the Broadway musical as a life force. Why, then, does the new revival of the show at the Schoenfeld feel like a wake?
One cannot directly blame, as one so often can, the creative team. Those behind this revival are dedicated to the proposition that this show was perfect as it was: Its director, Bob Avian, co-choreographed the original; its choreographer, Baayork Lee, was one of its stars; the designs of the sets (by Robin Wagner), costumes (Theoni V. Aldredge), and lights (Tharon Musser, adapted by Natasha Katz) are also making return appearances.
No, this isn't a case of the creatives not trusting the original enough: It's a case of them trusting it too much. And in the process, they've highlighted the true extent of the contributions made by the most vital element missing this time: Michael Bennett.
As conceiver, choreographer, and director of the original production, Bennett did more than erect guideposts by which an identical journey could later be reconstructed. He assembled the show through taped confessions with dancers, workshops (unheard of at the time) at The Public Theater, and - most importantly - his own unique theatrical sensibility that perceived every dance move, entrance and exit, and step across the stage as a metaphor for life's struggles. The resulting musical, though outwardly telling of 17 dancers competing for eight jobs in a Broadway ensemble, so universally approached human concerns like success, failure, and aging that the show ran a then-unprecedented 15 years on Broadway, and spawned countless other productions around the world.
If Bennett saw the world as his own personal Broadway musical, he had no misconceptions about the realities of the business. He ensured that A Chorus Line - like Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, which he choreographed four years earlier, was as much a celebration of the power of the contemporary musical as an elegy for the old ways that no longer made it possible. But his vision made the story palatable, even delectable. In his absence (he died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987), nothing can loosen the unforgiving grip of history that's proven the show's predictions about the future of Broadway dancers to be sadly correct.
The show's libretto (by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante), like Marvin Hamlisch's full-tilt music and Edward Kleban's intricately clever lyrics, retains its punch, though it bruises you differently now. Gone are the bitter shocks that once accompanied occasionally harsh language, or frank discussions of plastic surgery, homosexuality, and cross-dressing. Today, the most piercing lines are those that remind us how temporary - and tragic - our pursuits of even our brightest dreams can be.
Never has dictatorial director Zach, who drives the action with his insistence that the dancers reveal their private histories for absolution on his line, seemed himself as much of a gypsy as he does as played here by one-time chorus standout Michael Berresse. Zach's erstwhile lover Cassie (Charlotte d'Amboise), who left the chorus and wants to return now that her career is on the skids, is older than ever and more desperate to reclaim what she considers her spiritual and artistic birthright. When the auditioners are forced to imagine their lives without dancing, certain statements ring with a shocking urgency: "I don't wanna hear about how Broadway's dying, 'cause I just got here," "They're not doing big musicals like they used to," and "Nobody got into this business to play it safe."
There's a palpably ironic tinge to the last, as playing it safe is what this production is all about. For all the brilliance that still surges through the score - songs like "Nothing," sung by Diana (Natalie Cortez) about her horrific acting teacher, and "One," a paean of paeans to all Broadway leading ladies, remain timelessly irresistible - and the dances (the glitter-drenched finale cannot be bettered), this production feels too content at the mere fact of its existence.
Avian has seamlessly stitched together the show's various pieces, but examined individually, each component seems lacking: Lee's dances, while practically step-perfect recreations, land as mortal choreography, never burning with the otherworldly, cynical sexiness that defined Bennett's best work in set pieces like Cassie's soul-stopping "The Music and the Mirror" or "I Hope I Get It." The orchestra (led by Patrick Vaccariello) emits only obligatory energy, keeping you alert without seizing your senses. (Among other things, the harp has been excised from Bill Byers, Hershy Kay, and Jonathan Tunick's once-peerless orchestrations.)
The performances, too, while hardly perfunctory, don't possess the spark that suggests we're watching 19 legitimate stars strut their stuff. In particular, Berresse and dynamic dancer d'Amboise, who look of disparately different ages, establish no believable history together, making their late-show confrontations - so crucial for establishing the necessity of dance in these people's lives - ring hollowly.
Some casting, such as Deidre Goodwin as valium-martini bitch Sheila or a too-cute Alisan Porter as plain-Jane Bebe, represents interesting ideas that don't quite pay off. Some is passable but unexciting: Jason Tam is too collected for the terrified Paul, whose monologic revelation of his drag past is usually the show's most affecting moment; Cortez is a highly agreeable - if vocally underpowered - Diana. Other roles are better inhabited: Jeffrey Schecter is pointedly funny as show-off Mike, Yuka Takara's a spunky delight as "Four Foot Ten" Connie, and Heather Parcells is a pleasantly flighty Judy.
Everyone seems better as a part of the group than they do on their own, but even that provides but cold comfort: The road ahead of these characters is even more difficult than they're aware, as they and their descendants will have to contend with over-amplification, virulent star casting, and playing instruments onstage, as the art that inspired them transforms into something none of them - or Bennett - envisioned. So you become even more grateful for the respectful creative team, who've worked to unearth the fleeting joys of 1975 in this production, though they've barely managed to recapture the original's magic.
They've even worked Bennett into the show by casting eerie look-alike Michael Paternostro as the flamboyantly sexual Greg, and he firmly projects Bennett's authority and personality. Avian and Lee can't be faulted for not evoking still more: They've done their best, but they might have more closely recreated the glory of A Chorus Line by better respecting the singularly sensational abilities of themselves and their cast. Wouldn't Bennett himself have probably wanted to start from scratch?