By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
There is no doubt that innovation was in the DNA of “A Chorus Line”.
Director-choreographer Michael Bennett conceived of the 1975 show as having essentially no plot – more or less a series of monologues tied to songs and, of course, lots of dancing.
For starters, the show – book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and its songs by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics) – takes place on a bare stage and is performed without intermission. Not your typical Broadway musical.
Laguna Playhouse’s new production shows how Bennett’s concept has created gold from supposed passives.
The director and choreographer Luis Villabon offers a kinetic and catchy staging; the book’s layered monologues give plenty of work to Villabon’s well-chosen cast; and Hamlisch’s memorable score elevates Kleban’s equally pungent lyrics.
While Bennett brought on Bob Avian to co-choreograph the original, Villabon takes care of everything in Laguna, making it easy, with musical direction from Ricky Pope and Chris Strangfeld (stage), Clifford Spulock (lighting) and Ian Scot (sound) as design team.
The Playhouse’s staging is brimming with vibrant, joyful and electric energy – and that gives the most realistic moments all the more impact.
The Simplest Story: Director Zach (Jonathan Van Dyke) is launching a new musical on Broadway. With the help of his assistant choreographer, Larry (James Vinson), he auditions singer-dancers for the show’s chorus.
Zach tells those who turn out that he needs a superlative little choir of four women and four men, but he misses the same old man who watches headbutts, hears each dancer recite a brief biography and the sees perform a few dance steps.
An impatient Zach begins pressing each of the 22 contending roles in the chorus to explain what got them there, exactly. And he’s asking more and more personal details about themselves, their lives, and what made them want to become professional dancers.
Zach and Larry quickly narrowed the field to 17 potential candidates – more than half of whom will go through a rigorous afternoon but will ultimately be sent home. To his surprise, one of the dancers is Cassie (Katie Van Horn). Years ago, the two were a couple; Zach pulled her out of the choir – and once fame beckoned, Cassie left him.
Her career failed to take off, and now she’s back in New York, desperate for a spot on “the line” – but Zach deems her overqualified for what amounts to an entry-level spot.
While most of the other contestants are younger than Cassie, some have almost as much experience, while others are surprisingly fresh.
That’s what makes “A Chorus Line” such a compelling play. Writers Kirkwood and Dante combed through interviews with real-life Broadway musical chorus dancers before distilling them into individual stories.
These are the stories we hear during the play, and are they always fascinating. They’re also intensely personal, thanks to Zach’s penchant for asking probing questions. As he sees, he has God-like power over this group, and he will not be satisfied until he breaks through to their souls.
The dancers are the physically imposing and ultra-confident Sheila (Natalie Kastner), the seductive Val (Haley Ayers), the eccentric Judy (Ava Cusitor), the benevolent Maggie (Kristen Daniels), the little Connie (Erika Harper), the the introverted Bebe (Ellery Smith), the intense Diana (Daniella Castoria) and the comedic Kristine (Presley Nicholson).
Kristine and her outgoing husband Al (Bryce Bayer) are newlyweds who enjoy auditioning together for any new show. We also meet the jaded Bobby (Ryan Mulvaney), the crazy basketball player Richie (William Nelson), the fast student Mike (Al Love), the hyper-masculine Don (Dorian Quinn), the confident Greg (Patrick Murray) , the painfully shy Paul (Johann Santos), and Mark (Benji Godley-Fisher), barely of age, who at 20 is the baby of the group.
While giving Zach a sense of the person behind the facade of an otherwise nameless but pivotal figure, some of the dancers are hesitant, some nervous or excited, others downright silly, but as seen in Laguna, all have an extra personality. Each gets their moment in the spotlight – under Zach’s penetrating gaze, of course.
Bennett, Kirkwood, Dante and company wisely positioned four consecutive “cuts” right in the center of the series, compressing a substantial amount of character reveals into more compact and accessible segments. The characters are revealed to come of age during “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” which is both poignant and comical.
Love is engaging as Mike who, as a little boy, was dragged into his older sister’s ballet lessons, gravitating towards dancing and discovering he was a natural.
Sheila is strong, and she doesn’t know it, and Kastner shows that the curvaceous blonde beauty’s favorite style mixes caustic remarks and irony. Naturally, we learn why: Seeking to escape a squalid family life, she found solace watching ballet dancers do their thing.
Nicholson’s semi-Valley Girl delivery doesn’t quite fit the middle, but Kristine’s edginess and comedic inability to carry a melody makes it all the more endearing, while Bayer shows husband Al as loving support.
Just a lovable kid at heart, Godley-Fisher’s Mark is eager to get going and pleasantly preserved. Diana is never shy about expressing her opinions, whether about herself, others, or life, a quality enhanced by Castoria’s refreshing personality. Quinn walks a very different fine line – in her case, projecting Don’s masculinity minus any off-putting bluster.
Having seemingly seen and done it all, Bobby de Mulvaney finds life to be one big sleep. Nelson’s fiery Richie has skillfully transferred his nimble moves from the basketball court to the dance floor and the stage, and Murray lends a lot of cheek to Jewish gay Greg.
Almost the oldest, stage vet Val is a young, tiny, but mighty dynamo. Pigtailed Ayers is earthier and less effervescent than typical representations. A highlight of Laguna is “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” – Val’s hit story, told in song, about a fantastic dancer who nobody noticed until she discovered enhanced breasts and behind like the magic ticket.
Vinson makes the most of the fundamentally utilitarian role of Zach’s right hand, which faithfully conveys the artistic visions of the tough master Zach to those hoping to be in the new show.
Van Dyke traces a clear arc from Zach, from the unseen, divine presence with a commanding voice that controls each dancer’s destiny to the confused, all-too-human lover once rejected by Cassie. This Zach is more flawed than we ever imagined – and also more protective and nurturing.
The second half of the show features four of the best and most well-known songs from “Chorus Line,” and it’s also where the reluctant Paul finally came out of his shell thanks to Zach’s diligent insistence. Santos skates past the role’s darker emotional colors in favor of hunched-shouldered humility, but his performance and the power of the material more than make up for it.
The post-intermission second act set in Laguna also focuses on the difficult and complicated dynamic between Zach and Cassie as they struggle to navigate their romantic past with what might be a familiar but now strained working relationship.
Van Horn’s shaky voice signals Cassie’s self-doubt born from countless professional defeats, but she finds inner strength in standing up for herself – and even Zach – and in the long solo dance sequence “The Music and the Mirror”, Van Horn’s beautiful dancing talents sync up with Cassie’s star qualities.
“Dance Ten” and “Mirror” propel the show to its satisfying finale with two more deservedly famous numbers: “One” and “What I Did for Love.”
“One”, the driving capper of Zach’s new show, is seen first as a raw workout and second time as a showstopper in his own right as the entire cast (not just the “last eight “) does everything with more joy and less inhibitions than during rehearsals.
The anthem “What I Did for Love” counterbalances “One”, with Diana’s passion representing the price of success not just on stage, but anywhere. Castoria’s heartfelt rendition emphasizes the fact that “love” refers not just to romance, but to the self-sacrifice and commitment necessary to achieve any love: career, any form. of art, and for colleagues, family and friends.
Whether or not they make the final cut, these 17 characters have chosen to minimize life’s sorrows while putting everything “on the line” in real life and in their careers. “A Chorus Line” blurs the lines between the two, giving us an artful and stylized take on reality.
Despite the series’ 70s vibe, it transcends its original era by reflecting multiple aspects of human nature. Some of the monologues are just amazing, just one reason the show has endured.
“A Chorus Line” was groundbreaking in its day, but was, still is, and probably always will be a crowd pleaser.
Moulton Theater, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Until June 12. Duration (intermission included): 2h30. Tickets: $51 to $81. Ticket Purchase/Information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org