A Chorus Line
Broadway Series South
Through Jan. 11
Thirty-three years later, the largest metaphor in Michael Bennett's gritty backstage musical can hardly be missed. It remains in that oversized dance studio mirror that extends across stage, from proscenium to floor, facing the audience from the back of the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage. For if certain plot devices, design stratagems and musical and dance motifs in A Chorus Line do seem dated by this point, there's no denying just how many of our culture's preoccupations with embodied beauty, sexuality, art—and the potential resale value of these things—still winds up reflected on this stage.
Yes, most of us have moved well beyond the achingly winsome gay victimage depicted in the improbably angelic—and thankless—role of Paul in James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's 1973 book, while selected self-embraced racial stereotypes, decommissioned during the last two decades, still make us wince no matter how smoothly glossed. The blaring horns of composer Marvin Hamlisch's opening number seem stuck in one of the hipper variety shows of 1960s television. Then there are those melodramatic light changes that plunge us, without warning, into the emotional abysses inhabited by characters in "At the Ballet" and "The Music and the Mirror."
And yet. Musical theater's professional practices—and its end results, on stage—still exaggerate, distort and, arguably, debase a number of our notions about embodied art. We see them here, in dancers' forms altered by extreme training, anorexia and elective surgery; and in the desperate merchandising of the body—a fragile commodity with a finite shelf life. Finally, we see them in the dancers' looks, and in their looking away; in the stories Zach, the show-within-a-show's choreographer, uncovers—and in the reticence the auditioners exhibit when telling them. Tales of remembered joys in the past and present are tempered with darker acknowledgments: what you won't do to get a role; what you will do, ultimately, when you can no longer dance.
Unfortunately, performance and technical issues in this production distract us. On opening night, the shrill, tinny and wafer-thin sound design—easily one of the worst sound mixes I have ever heard at Memorial Auditorium—blighted the vocal and orchestral mix, flattening multi-singer passages to paper thinness. Given the tech, it's hard to say if Clyde Alves' near-comic nasality in moments in "I Can Do That" and Vinie Carranza's false falsetto was entirely man-made or electronically disfigured.
A first-night problem this big may well have been addressed by the time you read this. But Robyn Hurder's inability to convince us that her Cassie really is the dance ninja the script calls for in what should be her big dance number, "The Music and the Mirror," may be a greater difficulty, never mind her momentary lapses in pitch. Something's clearly amiss when her character displays more personality when being told to conform with the others in a final audition sequence, than in a lengthy showcase solo, moments earlier, on an empty stage.
The montage of characters' memories make "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" a delight, but Mindy Dougherty's "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" was too rushed to accommodate the internal syncopation in the lyrics.
Yes, the finale seemed flawless from my seat, electrifying as the chorus line moved with precision and style. But this Chorus Line needs a tune-up with tech, music and choreography to make it all it should be.
Want another view on what's really going on at a dance audition? Our 2002 article "Dance Marathon" analyzes an audition at that year's American Dance Festival.