Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

A Chorus Line
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of The Little Mermaid, One Man, Two Guvnors, and The Wizard of Oz


Audrey Sullivan and Jean-Paoul Clemente (right side) and Cast
A Chorus Line is one of the most well-known and beloved musicals of all time. The winner of nine Tony Awards and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it is also a show that requires a large, multi-talented cast who can act, sing, and dance their asses off. Mesa Encore Theatre's production of this classic musical is quite good, with a cast that delivers and the end result is a winning production of a musical that still resonates today, forty years after it first premiered.

A Chorus Line ran for almost 15 years on Broadway. The score, by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban, includes several songs that became instant classics, including "What I Did for Love," "One," and "At the Ballet." If you aren't aware of the significance of this musical or how it came to be, here is a brief recap: In early 1974, a group of unemployed dancers took part in sessions where they discussed their lives and how being a dancer has affected them. These very intimate and autobiographical interviews were recorded and director/choreographer Michael Bennett, working with book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, crafted the contents of the recordings into the plot for A Chorus Line. The resulting musical portrays an audition set in 1975 for the dancing chorus of a Broadway show. The people auditioning are mainly veteran dancers in their 20s through early 30s. The show ends with Zach, the director/choreographer, picking the eight dancers who will be in his show.

But before the eight are picked, Zach asks the dancers to talk about their lives. Topics discussed include what their childhoods were like, why they wanted to become dancers, and what they would do if they could no longer dance. The musical has an honesty to it that shows the reality of the people involved as well as their motivation for dancing and some of their deep inner thoughts. What the dancers reveal about their lives has a universality to it and that is why I believe the show is still meaningful today—in some way, each of us has something in common with at least one, if not many of the dancers on the stage. Whether it be a difficult childhood, teen angst, body issues, or the simple joy of loving the profession you've chosen, there is something we can all relate to.

And, of course, another reason for the success of this show is that there is a lot of pretty amazing choreography.

The production at Mesa Encore Theatre is a little rough around the edges in terms of the cast, who are relatively young; a few just graduated high school and one talented cast member is only 14. This works well for some of the cast, but for others it works against them, as A Chorus Line is a show about people who've lived and have learned life lessons along the way, which is kind of hard to fully get across if you're only 18.

The show is very much a true ensemble, with each actor getting a moment or two to shine, though a few get a little more to do as well. While, for the most part, the cast are all pretty good actors, some are lacking just a bit in their singing and dancing abilities. But these shortcomings are never enough to be a detriment to the overall enjoyment of the production.

Jean-Paoul Clemente is Zach, the director/choreographer. While Clemente pulls off the look and demeanor of a slightly egotistic creative type, some of his line readings lack determination as does his brief dancing with the cast. Fortunately, he is very good in his two dialogue-heavy dramatic scenes, one with Zach's former lover Cassie, and the other with the somewhat introverted and shy Paul. Alan Khoutakoun as Paul has the show's best dramatic moment when he talks about realizing he is gay, finding himself, and about his father finally calling him "my son." It is a deeply moving emotional speech that doesn't have the impact it should when in the hands of a less skilled actor. But Khoutakoun is excellent, giving the monologue an exceptional delivery and making that moment in the show both beautiful and heartbreaking. Audrey Sullivan has the right amount of determination as Cassie, the dancer who found success in featured roles on Broadway but who has now come back from an unsuccessful move to Los Angeles in need of a job, though her big solo dance number seems to lack a little sizzle. Fortunately, her dramatic confrontation with Zach more than compensates for the less than stellar "Music and the Mirror" number, with both Sullivan and Clemente excellent in this confrontational scene.

Jacqui Notorio is superb as Sheila, one of the oldest of the dancers who has a "seen it all" persona. Her sassy, biting line delivery and knowing glances let us know exactly what she's been through in her life. Notorio is a skilled dancer and actress and her vocals in the "At the Ballet" trio bring an earthy, emotional connection to the experience her character sings about. She is joined in that song by Katharine Boelter and Kim Cooper-Schmidt, playing Bebe and Maggie, and it is a major highlight of this production. As Diana Morales, Megan Rose projects a clear sense of determination and understanding in her story and song about the acting teacher who underestimated her skills, "Nothing," as well as very nice vocals in her solo part of "What I Did for Love." Riane Roberts is a hoot as Val, the girl who realized a little plastic surgery was what was needed in order to improve her job prospects.

As Richie, Shawn Wong is exuberant, while Joshua Frankowski, Calvin Witmer, Cody Duke, Haley Johnson, and Alejandra Castro-Luna bring plenty of humor to their scenes as Bobby, Greg, Don, Connie, and Judy. Stefan Linder has fun as the dancer who learned how to tap at a young age. Corey Gimlin and Elizabeth Schmitt are cute and touching as a recently married couple and, as Mark, and just 14, Sam Ellefson has some amazing dance abilities which point to a very bright future ahead of him.

Peter J. Hill's direction is clear, providing fluid transitions throughout as well as expert acting from the majority of the cast. Noel Irick's choreography is only somewhat similar to Bennett's original dance steps, but with some nice added original touches that really work. While some of the steps are basic, presumably for those who aren't as skilled as some of their co-stars, they don't detract from the exuberance of a young cast displaying their skills. The only moment that is slightly dissatisfying is the finale. The continually repeated steps, and absence of something similar to the elaborate circular movement that Bennett crafted as the pinnacle of the finale, stop this sequence just short of greatness. Jason Walz's scenic design employs a similar wall of mirrors design that was originally used on Broadway, which still works exceptionally well, and Irick also supplied the costume designs, which are somewhat period specific and individual enough to allow us to easily identify each character throughout. Blake Lumley's lighting design is very effective in seamlessly moving us from the reality moments to the memory sequences and back.

A Chorus Line is about the passion one has for something, which is a feeling everyone can relate to. MET's production, with just a few very small quibbles, is moving, touching, buoyant, and joyful. Although the cast is on the young side, the end result is a success, as the roughness and young age of some of the actors is offset by the sheer energy, excitement, and talent they all display.

A Chorus Line runs through June 7th, 2015, at Mesa Encore Theatre with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at www.mesaencoretheatre.com.

Director: Peter J. Hill
Choreographer: Noel Irick
Musical Director: Debra Jo Davey
Scenic Design: Jason Walz
Costume Design: Noel Irick
Stage Manager: Wendy Smith
Sound Design: Tom Drewnowski
Lighting Design: Blake Lumley

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Bebe: Katharine Boelter
Judy: Alejandra Castro-Luna
Zach: Jean-Paoul Clemente
Vicki: Nancy Crooms
Tricia: Nicole DelPrete
Don: Cody Duke
Maggie: Kim Cooper-Schmidt
Mark: Sam Ellefson
Lois: Cristen Fortier
Bobby: Joshua Frankowski
Al: Corey Gimlin
Roy: Enrique Guevara
Connie: Haley Johnson
Paul: Alan Khoutakoun
Frank: Michael LeSueur
Mike: Stefan Linder
Sheila: Jacqui Notorio
Lori: Larah Pawlowski
Val: Riane Roberts
Diana: Megan Rose
Kristine: Elizabeth Schmitt
Cassie: Audrey Sullivan
Greg: Calvin Witmer
Ritchie: Shawn Wong


Photo: Ryan Roberts

--Gil Benbrook


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