By Bill Hirschman
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The surprising strength of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production of A Chorus Line is how it delivers everything that your memory recalls fondly of past productions but infuses it with a welcome freshness that makes you glad you ventured to see it again.
If you have any affection for this classic, this is a must see that earns the adjective flawless – a word rarely found in a theater review.
The magical element is that this first-class no-asterisks ensemble and director/choreographer have gently underscored more than most productions that aching of all people yearning to be who they have discovered they are and who they want to be. As Cassie sings, the words ripped out of her spleen, “God, I’m a dancer; a dancer dances!”
A Chorus Line plugs into something primal in its audiences around the world whether or not the observer loves theater, or whether they long to be a welder or a poet. When the chorus sings, “I really need this job,” everyone knows they aren’t just talking about paying the bills; we all relate to wanting to do something that fulfills our soul and our self-respect.
For those living in a cave since 1975, A Chorus Line took the real oral histories of Broadway dancers and forged them through a ground-breaking extended workshop process. It resulted in a moving musical that ran 6,137 performances (not counting a later revival) and won Tony Awards for director/choreographers Michael Bennett and Bob Avian; dancers Donna McKechnie, Sammy Williams and Kelly Bishop; book writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood; lyricist Ed Kleban and the late composer Marvin Hamlisch. It is follows a group of dancers auditioning for a new Broadway show. Besides exhibiting their terpsichorean talent, they are forced through a merciless psychological cross-examination by the director/choreographer who quizzes them about their often-troubled pasts.
The Maltz’s director/choreographer Josh Walden has not tried to reinvent A Chorus Line; Maltz audiences would rebel at that. Many of the iconic images are recreated such as the dancers standing on the line holding their headshots in front of their faces. In fact, much of the choreography intentionally and extensively quotes the original work of Bennett and Avian. But as with The Wick’s Theatre’s current production of 42nd Street, civilians shouldn’t underrate Walden’s ability to get such a superb level of performance out of this crew.
But, even better, Walden has excelled at eliciting acting and singing performances that are unique to this production and thereby giving it that fresh feel. This isn’t Memorex. This is Method acting drawing from these performers’ own pasts.
It helps that this show has cast exemplary triple-threat performers. Often critics talk admiringly about dancers who can act and sing as well, yet there is an unspoken “but” that tacks on those second two talents as if there are lower expectations in those categories. Not here, folks. Every last one sings like a Broadway star and acts these roles with an unflagging plausibility in which the anxiety, hope, pain and joy are written across their faces and their body language. Just an example, watch Becca Andrews’ Val who never pulls focus from the person speaking, but who is always in the moment, always reacting to what is being said. They all do that.
Each also creates a full-realized persona. Although there are 17 dancers auditioning, it only takes 15 minutes or so before we can easily identify each one. That’s part of the musical’s secret and certainly the secret of this production’s success – they are unique individuals and therefore people worthy of rooting for and investing your emotions in.
Many of the cast members have done the show before which must have been some help since they only had 2 ½ weeks rehearsal before a few days of tech rehearsal.
Walden, who was in the chorus line of the Maltz’s Hello Dolly in 2012, has inserted his own staging touches, of course, but he knows and delivers the iconic essentials. The show is an intermissionless two hours, but Walden glides the cast through its time with such grace and fluidity that few people were checking their watches,
You have to love how some of the dancers in the opening dance audition sequence are not nailing the moves crisply; in some cases, they are out of step as they would be still learning the combinations.
The look is the same – the faux bare brick back wall of the theater, the white line and the mirrors which reflect the audience since the Maltz’s back section slopes steeply upwards. Therefore, much of the audience can seen what the performers are seeing, an extra thrill for civilians. The rehearsal outfits look much like the original, but Anna Christine Hillberry oversaw the 19 rhinestone and spangle outfits for the finale.
The entire cast deserves mention, but we’ll single out a few. Elizabeth Earley as Cassie has that glorious dance solo which she executes well if not with the sharpness we’ve seen in other productions. And oddly appropriately, she doesn’t stand out on the line for the first half of the show. But her singing of “The Music and The Mirror” is heart-wrenching and her earnest pleading for a job with the director (and former lover) is first-rate acting with no qualifiers.
As Paul whose father sees him in a drag show, Jordan Fife Hunt’s long monologue of excruciating self-revelation is emblematic of the production: deeply moving as in any other production but intriguingly different than the way you’ve seen it before. It’s interesting that after Cassie’s showstopping dance solo, the creators of the show followed it by a music-less, dance-less acting scene that is just as memorable.
As always, Jennifer Byrne’s Sheila is all defensive acidity, but she exposes deep wounds and vulnerability in the gorgeous rendition of “At The Ballet” with the equally talented Michelle Petrucci as Bebe and Jessica Dillan as Maggie.
The aforementioned Becca Andrews as the drop dead gorgeous Val also gives a slightly different spin to the hilarious “Dance 10, Looks 3.” Camden Gonzales does the same in her solo “Nothing” and leading the cast in “What I Did For Love.”
None of this shortchanges the rest: Noah Aberlin, Alex Aguilar, Lindsay Bell, Anne Bloemendal, Michael Callahan, DeMarius R. Copes, K.C. Fredericks, Logan Keslar, Adam Lendermon, Gillian Munsayac, Shain Stroff and Brian Oglivie as Zach the stern director/choreographer. For some reason, the dancers cut from the group in the first scene did not get included in the finale and did not get to make a bow, so we’ll name them here: Laura Guley, Nick Lovalo, Jessica Perieria, Kiel Peterson, Emily Rynasko, Brian Varela and Nikki Allred.
Another memorable stretch was the extended fever dream of internal monologues about adolescence “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love.” Besides the perfect staging and performances, it highlighted the fluid lighting design by Paul Black (including considerable backlighting) and split-second calls of stage managers Brandy Demil and Michael J. Iannelli.
The nine-member band led by musical director Eric Alsford was note perfect. Marty Mets sound was clear, but there was a canned quality to it. While there is no such thing as natural sound in theaters anymore, there was no illusion that this was not coming out of speakers.
This reviewer has stated said that Maltz’s productions are expertly executed but don’t always touch the emotions. Well, this one sure as hell does. It nails the heart of this show with the force of an air gun. It’s selling out quickly; get your seats.
A Chorus Line plays through Feb. 2 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time: About two hours with no intermission Tickets are $52-$59, available by calling (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org.