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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
A Chorus Line's pioneering credentials are multi-faceted: Besides bringing the musical chorus performers out of the shadows, this was the first show to talk openly about homosexuality and portray homosexuals sympathetically. Until Cats broke the record, it was the longest running Broadway musical (6, 137 performances) and hit a new high for making a grand sweep of every award on offer (numerous Tony awards as well as a Pulitzer). Michael Bennett's tapes of actual Broadway dancers also broke ground for creating a show collaboratively, a method in recent years embraced by groups like Les Freres Corbusier and currently at Shakespeare & Company via Split KnuckleTheatre's distinctively choreographed Endurance
Fortunately, musical theater directors seem to be less impelled to diddle with firmly established works and follow the old adage of don't fix what ain't broke (shades of the new-fangled production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest currently at another prestigious Berkshire venue). Eric Hill, who's not averse to innovative directorial filips, is presenting the Berkshire Theatre Group's revival of Chorus Line at the gorgeously restored Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield without any attempt to update its auditioning dancers' stories, add fancy scenery or ultra-elaborate, multiple costume stages.
For those who've seen Chorus Line before, the current revival is a chance to revisit it and appreciate it as more than a backstage story but as one about all manner of dreams. For young first-timers this is an opportunity chance to see a legendary musical which, thanks to Gerry McIntyre's recreation of the original eye-popping choreography by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian, is as close as they can get to experiencing what their parents and grandparents saw when the show opened in 1975.
What's new, or still new, is that since reorganizing itself as the Berkshire Theatre Group, the erstwhile Berkshire Theatre Festival has a Broadway-sized theater in which to mount a musical that could have danced from New York's Great White Way to Pittsfield's South Street. The once more elegant theater, for many years buried in back of a paint store, literally cries out for big productions like Tommy, BTG's first Colonial show (also directed by Mr. Hill), and Chorus Line. The reality of summer theater specifics and financial considerations presently allow for just one show calling for a large cast, pit orchestra and sophisticated lighting each year, with the imposing space less utilized by the many solo shows on the menu at other times.
Obviously, bringing Broadway pizazz to the Colonial once ia year s better than not at all, and so is a run considerably shorter than the original fifteen years. Mr. Hill has assembled a terrific ensemble of hopefuls to strut their stuff and also reveal more than what's in their resumes to the demanding director who must narrow the auditioning group down to eight who can act as well as dance.
To paraphrase what I said after last viewing the show a half dozen years ago, whatever memories or expectations you bring with you, you'd have to be the Scrooge of Pittsfield not to appreciate the theatricality of Michael Bennett's concept or to be bowled over by the "I Hope I Get It" opening and the joyous reprise of the signature "Once" with the company as well as director Zach and his assistant Larry taking their bows in full regalia of the show the audition was all about. A dozen chandeliers can't beat the one drop-dead prop, a big back wall mirror that multiplies the dancers. Marvin Hamlish's songs are as tuneful as ever and the wit and poignancy of Ed Kleban's lyrics still jump out at you.
Some of the critics who griped about it being impossible to recreate the authenticity of the original production which recreated the intensive audition process for casting a Broadway show's dance team from actual taped interviews, are likely to do so again. Ignore anything you hear to that effect. Interspersing the dance heavy show with the dancers' confidences about their lives and dreams is still a refreshingly simple and effective concept. Even the people who saw the show during its original run, for the most part didn't actually see all the performers whose stories informed the book, so having the current cast telling stories that might be but aren't actually their own is not a problem.
On the other hand, admirable as Hill's decision to present A Chorus Line that's true to the original does mean that it comes with some built-in flaws. While the precision dancing scenes are wonderful, they entail enough drawn out repetition to occasionally make the show's energy feel in need of a battery recharge and the two-plus hours without intermission at least fifteen minutes too long. And while I'm quibbling, though a large house like the Colonial does call for amplification except for trained opera singers, I would have preferred more subtle looking and sounding ear devices rather than the unsightly head mikes used for this production.
With the focus correctly on the choreography, the dancing overall is outstanding. Matthew Bauman's Mark is the first to step forward with his personal song and dance could step into the chorus of Broadway's current big new hit Newsies with his amazing leaps. But I could rave about the extraordinary agility and grace of all his colleagues.
Since this is basically an ensemble show, there are no star players per se, though the role of Cassie (splendidly danced and acted with great feeling by Nili Bassman), the older dancer who has a personal history with Zach comes closest to being a diva part. In a similar vein, the male star part is that of Zach and Noah Racey, the only performer in this group with whose work I'm quite familiar, certainly proves himself to be a terrific actor in his portrayal of the director who has his own inner demons to contend with. Still, knowing Racey as I do as one of the contemporary theater's most nimble-footed and gifted choreographers, I couldn't help but be disappointed to see him spend more time as the voice of the mostly unseen director than showing off his own incredible dancing.
One of my favorite things about Berkshire summer theaters is the way the various artistic directors manage to give their limited run productions a broader scope through linked programs. Barrington Stage's season links together the immigrant experience with its splendid revival of Fiddler on the Roof and world premiere of Dr. Ruth All the Way. The Chester Theater is focusing on love stories with a difference and BTG's artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire is rounding out Chorus Line by presenting the original Cassie of Chorus Line in her solo show Donna McKetchnie: My Musical Comedy Life and a July 11 to August 4th run of A Class Act, the bio-musical about lyricist Edd Kleban's own life.
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