Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 29, 2008
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: Nick Adams, Deanna Aguinaga, Todd Anderson, Michelle Aravena, Tommy Berklund, Mike Cannon, E. Clayton Cornelious, Natalie Cortez, Charlotte d’Amboise, Dena DiGiacinto, Kurt Domoney, Joey Dudding, Eric DySart, Jenifer Foote, Lyndy Franklin, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Deidre Goodwin, Nadine Isenegger, Bryan Knowlton, James T. Lane, Melissa Lone, Mario Lopez, J. Elaine Marcos, Paul McGill, Kimberly Dawn Neumann, Heather Parcells, Jason Patrick Sands, Jeffrey Schechter, Will Taylor, Katherine Tokarz, Grant Turner, Josh Walden, Deone Zanotto.
It’s a shame that the casting of TV star Mario Lopez, known to one generation as high-school wrestling star A.C. Slater on NBC’s Saved by the Bell and to another as a standout on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line overshadows a much more significant new arrival at the Schoenfeld: life.
This production of the landmark 1975 musical, which was conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, and has a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and a score by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics), now pulses with a vitality it didn’t possess when it opened in October of 2006. This is, however, for reasons mostly unconnected to Lopez.
Oh, he’s fine as the tyrannical director Zach, who guides 17 auditioners through two hours of self-probing emotional examinations to determine their fitness for his upcoming show and for life itself. He’s a bit youthful for such an authoritarian (he’s 34, and looks younger still), and tends to push the dialogue that establishes Zach’s controlling nature, but he mostly convinces as a daring upstart willing to do anything to make his name - including making an older dancer, Cassie (Charlotte d’Amboise), into his star, muse, and momentary love interest. And when Lopez dances alongside his castmates, he easily holds his own in terms of polish and panache, even if his high kicks average a few inches closer to the earth than theirs.
Every moment he’s onstage, though - and, as has been reported, those moments have been increased (if only slightly) to give him more face time - he looks as though he’s thrilled to be there. One can’t blame him: The new energy and personality now pervading this production make it well worth seeing before its scheduled August 17 closing.
Of the newcomers, Bryan Knowlton brings a jittery tentativeness to Paul, wringing every bit of wrenching potential from the reserved man’s central monologue about growing up gay. As Kristine, Katherine Tokarz is leaps and bounds more honest than her predecessor in explaining (to howlingly funny, and sometimes howlingly painful, effect) her embarrassing inability to sing, while her husband Al (a laid-back Mike Cannon) prompts her. And Melissa Lone finds in little-girl-lost Maggie an effervescent dedication to her art that bursts with joy in her part of “At the Ballet.” In addition, there were no fewer than four understudies at the performance I attended - all were excellent.
Still on hand from the initial cast, Deidre Goodwin has added some supple shadings to her impenetrable Sheila, allowing a few welcome chinks to appear in what was once a smooth wall of iron; Natalie Cortez has added a much-needed layer of realism to her ever-hopeful Diana (and thus improved the foundations of her two big songs, “Nothing” and “What I Did For Love”); and d’Amboise has grown much freer as the established name who just wants her anonymity (and her career) back.
But what shines even more brightly now is Bennett’s work. Divorced from the notion that dancing is for programmable automatons and not people, as seemed the case a year and a half ago, his dances aren’t just exciting - they’re full-blown brilliant. From the grandly traditional style of the opener (“I Hope I Get It”) and the finale “One” to the graceful rigidity of “At the Ballet,” from the fantasy realm of Cassie’s flowing solo “The Music of the Mirror” to the go-for-broke adolescent energy percolating through the coming-for-age montage “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” Bennett created a catalog of choreography that even today preserves the indomitable nature of the Broadway musical as it was, never was, and never will be again.
His work is even more powerful in light of two of the just-finished season’s musicals that were praised for their choreography. Exciting as Rob Ashford’s dances were for Cry-Baby, his unwillingness to distill large numbers to their emotional essences made them overwhelming spectacles rather than intense explorations of emotion. Andy Blankenbuehler, who won a Tony for his choreography for In the Heights, came much closer to integrating his steps with the world of the show, but still experienced difficulty balancing movement with meaning.
Bennett understood and avoided these pitfalls. So when his numbers explode in A Chorus Line, they do so with an aftershock of timelessness that instantly separates the historic from the also-rans. This revival might still fall short of making the history books itself, but it’s now become a must-see for all those of any age who care about Broadway showmanship. Lopez might not fully realize that potential himself, but he does more and better than most wary watchers of stars hired for their names and not their talents might expect. If he can get people in the door of the Schoenfeld and in the groove of Broadway at its best, this could be one of the few times that stunt-casting does more good than harm.