A Chorus Line ~ reviewed by Harriet Griffey
The time, 1975. The place, Broadway, New York. Auditions commence for a big new show, for the chorus line, and after a minute sitting in pitch darkness the lights go up and on a bare, dark stage the dancers take their places and are put through their paces, each fervently wishing, “I hope I get it…” as the first song opens and the ruthless selection process begins.
First I must declare an interest. I saw the show when it opened in London in 1976, a year after its Broadway debut – nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama – and ran for 15 years. In London it picked up an Olivier Award for Best New Musical and Evening Standard Award for Best Musical, ran for several years and then disappeared: this is its first West End revival. I liked the show so much I saw it twice. I really didn’t want my memories of this heart lifting, exciting musical diminished so, with some trepidation, I took my seat.
What begins as a hotchpotch of dancers starts to take shape as their individual characters are revealed: their troubled childhoods and small triumphs, their hopes and dreams, aspirations and vulnerabilities are shared. Paul, whose father’s final acceptance of his son’s career choice is poignantly revealed in a moving soliloquy; Sheila, the sexy, older woman whose philandering father broke her mother’s heart; Bebe, who only feels beautiful when she dances; Connie, too short to be a classical ballerina; Richie, who planned to be a kindergarten teacher; Val, who discovered that however good you were as a dancer, what you looked like counted for more; Diana, who couldn’t feel emotion; Bobby, whose conservative upbringing was the very antithesis of the glamour of a dance show; Kristine, who can’t sing; Greg, whose Catholic priest reassured him that his adolescent, self-diagnosed gonorrhea was no such thing; and Cassie, the failed solo star and ex-lover of Zach, the director for whom they are all auditioning.
But the real story is of the sweat and toil and relentless application it takes to dance well enough to be selected. This is no X-Factor audition, these are dancers whose bodies take the toll and every participant in this production can really dance, and sing, and act, bringing Marvin Hamlisch’s music, Edward Kleban’s lyrics and Bob Avian’s choreography and direction to sensational life. This is also no star vehicle, each and every cast member delivers – individually and collectively – they are all stars.
Memorable numbers had the audience clapping and cheering. Adam Salter’s Mike’s I Can Do That, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Diana’s Nothing, Rebecca Herszenhorn’s Val’s Dance: Ten, Looks: Three and Scarlett Strallen’s Cassie’s The Music and the Mirror. They all deserve praise. Even if the unreconciled love story between Cassie and John Partridge’s Zach doesn’t entirely convince, his performance is brilliantly enabled by his ability to dance, which is great to see – Partridge originally trained at the Royal Ballet School and was a member of the original cast of Cats at the age of 16, going on to play Rum Tum Tugger in both the West End and the film, information probably lost on fans of his EastEnders character Christian.
Was it worth the 37-year wait for its West End return? Emphatically, yes. I can only wonder why it’s never been revived before. It requires a decent proscenium arch to stage it, a minimum of 40 feet, which restricts some venues, for sure. It may not have the immediate storyline or mass appeal of current musical or jukebox favourites or movie tie-ins [the 1985 Richard Attenborough movie was unsuccessful, not least because the life-enhancing dynamism of the musical numbers works so much better live], but the critics are unanimous in their praise, those big numbers, the pathos of the individual sublimated into the chorus line for maximum effect, that urgent, desperation for a job on which not only a living wage but also self-esteem rests, resonate today as strongly – if not more so – as before.
Which brings me to the spine-tingling, breath-catching finale: One [Singular Sensation]. If you have only heard one song from the show, this is likely to be it and to see it performed live will knock spots off any expectation you may have. It knocked me out in 1976, it did so again last night and, once more, I was a teenager waiting my turn in the spotlight along with all the rest. It didn’t disappoint. It is a perfect and distinctive meld of Hamlisch, Kleban, Avian and the fantastically talented cast and showcases the ultimate appeal of the chorus line… that final, sublime moment of performance that transcends all the pain of audition and rehearsal. And yes, I will be going again before the end of this run.
Runs for 2 hours without an interval at the London Palladium, booking until June 29th
Fancy seeing this show? Join us on the inaugural Livetheatreclub! Top price tickets for just £39.50! More info can be found here: www.livetheatre.co/livetheatreclub