“A Chorus Line” is getting a new spin at Signature Theatre, and in a word—it’s sensational.
For someone who has never seen the show or movie, prepare to be completely wowed and moved by the Arlington company’s take on this iconic musical. Plus, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s songs, including the ultra-catchy “One,” will stay with you long after the show’s glitzy finale.
Director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Denis Jones team up again, after working on 2017’s wildly entertaining “Crazy for You”—another show that gave its dancers a high-impact workout.
“A Chorus Line,” conceived by director-choreographer Michael Bennett with a book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, follows 17 hopefuls who are vying for a spot in a new Broadway production. Bennett pulled together stories and experiences from interviews with real-life dancers—including Dante—into one compelling show, which took Broadway by storm after its début in 1975. And what better place to have their voices heard than in Signature’s intimate Max Theatre.
The nine-time Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize recipient has been made even more special, with permission from Bennett’s estate to create new staging and choreography.
No scenery is needed with the assortment of colorful characters filling up Jason Sherwood’s striking set design, which simply features a thin mirror running along the back wall of a bare stage. The dancers are outfitted in a variety of playful styles from costume designer Sarah Cubbage, which range from striped and patterned shirts to high-cut leotards and Cassie’s elegant wine-colored dress. Adam Honoré’s ever-changing light design, with its dramatic pops of color, complete the show’s look.
Over the course of two hours, the dancers of various ages, ethnicities and backgrounds reveal themselves to the director—and the audience—as their bodies are rigorously put through the audition test and Jones’ dazzling choreography. They’re more than just numbers and headshots, and one by one, they get their chance to prove that when director Zach asks them to talk about themselves. Some are more than forthcoming (like the oversharing Bobby, who has movie-star dreams, and the vivacious and not-to-mention-voluptuous Val), and some are more reluctant to divulge their history (like the quiet and soft-spoken Paul).
Their stories—from the humorous to the heart-piercing—give a glimpse into their awkward adolescent years, first jobs and family life. And you can feel their anxiety, desperation and hunger as they try to make it into Zach’s top eight.
The cast of “A Chorus Line” is uniformly excellent, but with so many characters onstage, some stand out just a little more than the rest.
Maria Rizzo brings so much personality to her role as Sheila, an older dancer who gets called out by Zach for her attitude and not taking the audition seriously. Once Sheila’s told to let her hair down, her character opens up immensely, revealing a softer side and an uncaring father, in the dreamy musical number “At the Ballet” with fellow dancers Bebe and Maggie. Rizzo, a Helen Hayes award winner for last year’s “Anything Goes,” also gets some of the show’s biggest laughs with her priceless facial reactions and one-liners.
Jeff Gorti is another standout as the reserved Paul, who finally shares his past to Zach when the others leave the stage. His monologue, in which he talks about school, his homosexuality and his relationship with his parents, is both beautiful and heart-crushing. Not only does this scene tell more of his character, but also of the seemingly emotionally detached director.
Emily Tyra delivers a sublime performance as Cassie, Zach’s former love interest and a soloist looking for work in the chorus line. Her performance in the lengthy musical number “The Music and the Mirror,” showcasing Cassie’s passion for dance, is mesmerizing to watch.
And Matthew Risch is absolutely magnetic as the no-nonsense director Zach. He has a commanding presence, spending much of the show sitting behind a table in the middle of the audience—his deep, gruff voice punctuating the action onstage. The chemistry and tension between Zach and Cassie is palpable, and Signature’s tight quarters only enhance the feeling that we’re intruding on a private moment.
“A Chorus Line” is another glorious achievement for Signature Theatre, which has tackled many big Broadway shows on the small stage. In the words of Val, this new version gets a “Dance: Ten, Looks: Ten” from me.