Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Conception by Michael Bennett
London Palladium Theatre, 8 Argyll St, Soho, London W1F 7TF
Booking to 18 Jan 2014
Why it has taken 37 years for Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line to return to the West End is a mystery, but Bob Avian, one of the original co-creators, has lovingly recreated it for a cast made up of the cream of British musical theater talent. The result is simply thrilling.
It had a famous gestation, Bennett recording dancers just telling their stories before the piece being work-shopped at the famous Public Theatre. In conceiving it, he illuminated the lives of these hitherto unsung heroes of Broadway and while giving dancers a voice he crafted a powerful and compelling drama which went on to win the Pulitzer, 9 Tonys and run of over 6000 performances.
Like all works of genius, its greatness lies in its simplicity. There is a white line on a bare stage and on it stand a troupe of dancers. They are at an audition being whittled down, first to 17 and eventually to just 8, by an imperious director, Zach. His disembodied voice, ringing out from the stalls, Zach entreats dancers to talk honestly about themselves and these stories then morph into the musical numbers.
Cocky Mike describes his first experience of watching his sisters at a dance class and thinking I Can Do That. Dry-as-dust Sheila (leggy goddess Leigh Zimmerman, in sparkling form) cuts the attitude for a moment and describes in At the Ballet how dance provided a much-needed respite from the domestic hell of her parents’ marriage. Tone-deaf Kristine bemoans that she can’t Sing. Mark, the baby of the group, recounts how he coped with his first wet dream, Greg charts the hell of growing up gay in a small town, and Diana sends up her tortuous method infused high school acting class, where she felt a failure because she felt Nothing. Connie, Chinese and 4' 10", laments being short, while the busty blonde Val extols the virtues of silicone and plastic surgery to transform your audition chances, in the catchy tune Tits and Ass.
Also in the mix is Cassie, Zach’s ex-partner. An ex-star oddly wanting to return to the chorus, her great solo The Music and Mirror is forever associated with Donna McKechnie who created it. Here the great Scarlett Strallen delivers it with gusto. Zach (the buff John Partridge) allows one dancer, a bright, sensitive, gay kid, Paul, to tell his story away from the rest. Coming to terms with his manhood involved tackling his hellish school days and starring in a self-esteem zapping drag show where he ran into his parents. Gary Wood’s delicate and quietly felt performance here is an emotional powerhouse, which stops the show.
The genius of the piece is how it interweaves gritty realism with showbiz cliché. It has an early Seventies rawness to it which is miles away from the shoddy emoting of today’s X Factor/American Idol competitions. This is not to say the piece is in anyway grim. It eventually builds to a climax which would lift the roof off any theater, so perfect is its execution.
Bennett poignantly explores too how dancers might cope when they can no longer dance. “Am I copping out or am I growing up” as Shelia puts it. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s interpretation of What I Did for Love gives us the answer.
The book is a model of concision, enhanced by Hamlisch’s lushly tuneful score, and the technical aspects coalesce into sheer perfection. Theoni V Aldredge’s great costumes are now of course ‘period’ (this was before leggings!) and Tharon Musser’s iconic lighting will never date, as its part of theater history.