Live theatre has often famously echoed true-to-life elements about itself in a way that is reflective and reminiscent of reality. There are plays within plays, musicals within musicals, and in the case of “A Chorus Line,” a show that highlights the grueling and candid audition process of a Broadway musical in 1975. This journey can be experienced for only a limited time in Thousand Oaks, CA, at the Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theater, through March 25th, before moving to the Fox Theater in Riverside (March 26th-27th).
With less pomp and pageantry, but more grit and verisimilitude, we’re immersed deeply into the desirous and hungry motivations of a stellar cast totaling 28 talented people. We can easily see why the 2018 touring production — which features Michael Bennett’s vision and choreography (Bob Avian was co-choreographer), Marvin Hamlisch’s music, Edward Kleban’s lyrics, and book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante — was originally the recipient of not only nine Tony Awards, but the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was, at one time, the longest-running show on Broadway. This touring rendition, which is presented by Big League Productions and Theater League, is successfully re-staged by original cast member, Baayork Lee, whose fabulous direction and choreography echoes Bennett’s landmark ideas.
Lee’s ability to inculcate in her performers the importance of discipline and working together as a dance team is observed from the outset with crisp and graceful movement, where everyone is in tune and in time with each other. Outstretched arms, leg splits, prompt turns, and head flips comprise but a few moves of a complex and highly appreciated choreography that is illuminated by Charlie Morrison’s expansive lighting design. Additionally, Michael McDonald’s faithful costume adaptation of Theoni V. Aldredge’s original designs (e.g., leotards, colorful tops, pants, and the glittery attire in the supremely satisfying “One” reprise) fan the flames of our imaginations, allowing us to live vicariously through the characters’ stories, much of which is based on the actual lives of the original cast. Not to mention, the necessarily frill-less stage of a revolving dance-studio mirror, and the music direction and impassioned orchestrations by Matthew Lowy and his eight musicians add up to a spectacular grandness, drama, sensuality, and even playfulness.
In this remarkable song-and-dance production, the auditionees are bound by the common goal of making the director’s chorus of eight (four boys and four girls). From innocuous remarks to full-blown confessions, we witness the catharses of the characters, who cover several themes, from their childhood backgrounds to the aspiring adults they’ve become. The director in the show, Zach – who is flanked by his assistant, Larry (the excellent Josh Zacher) – is played with great poise and presentation by Noah Bridgestock, whose comforting voice elicits these unique and yet unified narrative threads.
The first theme delves into the origins of the dancers, who are initially reluctant and apprehensive about being too frank. Nonetheless, that quickly changes, when Andrew Natale Ruggieri’s Mike performs an impressive solo, replete with awe-inspiring back-flips, in “I Can Do That.” Ruggieri has a confident energy about him that is also reflected in Darius R. Delk, who portrays Richie – a kindergarten teacher that nearly was – with a fiery panache and a soaring vocal register in the “Gimme the Ball” section of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” Then, there is someone like Don, who is depicted with a blue-collar respectability by Taylor Wright, and, despite once working in a strip club, is simply trying to make ends meet as a father and husband. This character provides an interesting contrast to the others who are trying to make the team to mostly fulfill their own individual wants.
Of course, the upbringing of these dancers has also been significant in influencing their personalities. This is best exemplified via the number, “At the Ballet,” among the trio of Bebe, who finds the utmost solace in dance (Laura Pierpont); Sheila, an older diva with a chip on her shoulder (Kahlia Davis); and Maggie, a personable young lady whose birth sadly couldn’t save her parents’ marriage (Kim McClay). The amalgam offered by Pierpont’s sweetness, Davis’ Norma Desmond-like presence, and McClay’s powerfully tender vocals make for a captivating effect that resonates with the audience.
Moreover, most of us can attest to having had our own idiosyncrasies, traits, or even awkwardness, of which many of these characters are not immune to. Actor Ryan Koerber, for instance, brings a funny strangeness to Bobby, who has an outlandishly refreshing way of looking at life. Peter Hughes, too, infuses Mark, the youngest of the auditionees, with an easy-to-relate to hypochondriac-esque paranoia about growing out of his adolescence. Lauren Garriott’s Judy is still struggling to find her voice even on the dance floor, and Garriott adeptly conveys the humor in this.
Even more so, for the violet-clad Val, issues of self-esteem run deeper and are related to her body image; that is, until she had plastic surgery. Melissa Cabey does a stellar job of owning her character’s past and present, enveloped in a surge of confidence still plagued by internal conflict during “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” For Diana, a proud Puerto Rican, her confusion vis-à-vis her surroundings in improv class is alluded to, as she cannot uncover any feelings inside her, positive or negative, until she empoweringly casts aside all doubts. Orianna Hilliard is spellbinding as Diana, lending her robust and evocative voice in two heart-tugging solos: “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love,” which is especially noteworthy for the juxtaposition of how emotional her vocal testaments are, compared with how still she stands.
On the more revelatory end of things, Nicholas Berke’s Greg and Pierre Marais’ Paul are sincerely forthcoming about how they came to terms with their homosexuality. Berke imbues Greg with an appropriate lightheartedness about his realization in his example of not wanting to go further on a (prior) date with a female, and Marais is absolutely poignant and moving in his monologue when he recounts his persona’s appreciation for Cyd Charisse, musical theater, as well as when his parents remained supportive of him when they found out about his secret.
The final observation is the difference in relationship dynamics between two sets of dancing couples. One couple is married – Al, who is given extra gravitas as a result of Giovanni Digabriele’s propulsive voice, and Erica Jane Hughes’ Kristine, whose nervousness and inability to be tuneful is entertainingly underscored in the fast-speaking-and-singing duet, “Sing!”. Conversely, we learn of a romantic relationship that was once serious and yet still simmers with regret and a lack of closure between Zach and the chorus’ most outstanding female dancer, and one who got closest to stardom, Cassie (Madison Tinder). Bridgestock and Tinder have a palpable intensity to their scenes – tied to a tumultuous past – and this culminates in the transformative solo in which Tinder breathtakingly commands the entirety of the stage with both her melodically earnest pleas and her magnificent dance routine in “The Music and the Mirror.”
Overall, while there are variously distinct personalities in “A Chorus Line,” the production is the apotheosis of the ensemble struggle presented by the well-oiled machine of a largely ensemble cast. The triple-threat aces in this 2018 touring production not only dazzle when they resoundingly sing and dance in unison with show-stopping performances of “I Hope I Get It,” “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” “One,” and more, but they make their director, Baayork Lee, proud and earn a well-deserved standing ovation from an adoring audience.