It takes balls to reimagine a classic and an abundance of talent to pull it off, particularly when the classic in question is the 1975 megaclassic A Chorus Line. Fortunately, Chance Theater’s Oanh Nguyen and Hazel Clarke have both, resulting in an A Chorus Line that might provoke protests from purists who’d have Michael Bennett’s direction and choreography set in stone but will likely thrill everyone else, this reviewer included.
Marvin Hamlisch’s music and Edward Kleban’s lyrics remain untouched, as do the characters book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante created from taped conversations with Broadway “gypsies” back in 1974.
Everything else is up for reinvention at the (take a) Chance, from the musical’s setting, no longer way far away up on a Broadway-scale proscenium stage but the mirrored rehearsal room itself, with us in the audience as flies on its fourth wall, a design concept that inspires a couple of major changes.
No longer can director/choreographer Zach (Ben Green) be a mostly unseen voice. At the Chance he remains right there among us throughout the show, taking notes and offering suggestions from a pair of back row perches on either side of the audience.
More significantly, the sixteen finalists can logically no longer “vanish” during certain production numbers. Instead, they remain onstage throughout (except when Zach sends them away on a break), inspiring choreographer Clarke to integrate the entire cast into numbers they’re not normally a part of.
Particularly impressive is “At The Ballet,” which now features an entire stageful of pirouetting, tour jeté-ing dancers much like those who inspired a very young Sheila (Camryn Zelinger), Bebe (Ashley Arlene Nelson), and Maggie (Kristen Daniels) to aspire to careers in dance.
There’s also “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” in which pubescent recollections by Mark (Brandon Carter) and Connie (Tina Nguyen) are now accompanied by dance moves that replicate the emotions (and body changes) experienced universally when entering the terrifying teens.
And just as Bennett tailored the much-replicated dance moves of “The Music And The Mirror” to suit his muse Donna McKechnie, so Clarke has done for the Chance’s Cassie (Tatiana Alvarez), even going so far as to include Zach in a romantic pas-de-deux.
Other show-stoppers that get rethought are “I Can Do That,” “Sing,” “Nothing,” “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” and “What I Did For Love,” performed by Mike (John Wells III), Al (Joseph Ott), Kristine (Emily Abeles), Diana (Angeline Mirenda), and Val (Victoria Rafael).
Only in the show-opening audition sequence and the “One” run-through that precedes its reappearance in the grand finale must a choreographer fit dance steps to pre-existing lyrics, but even here, Clarke adds her own flair, as she does to “hat tricks” that are part of the Michael Bennett legend.
Director Nguyen gives his oh-so talented cast a combination of inspired guidance and the freedom to make iconic roles their own, including Dannielle Green’s Judy, Ben Heustess’s Bobby, Christopher Mosley’s Richie, Xavier Castaneda’s Paul, Robbie Lundegard’s Greg, Garrett Engle’s Don, and Calvin Brady’s Larry. (Even costume designer Bradley Lock’s choices give each character a brand spanking new look.)
And speaking of innovation, no longer do A Chorus Line’s six “cut dancers” (Carolyn Lupin, Monika Pena, Liz Williams-Borud, Damon Williams, Dustin Nguyen, and John Wells) exit ten minutes into the show, never to return (not even for curtain calls). They stay on as “audience members” on either side of the stage, awaiting their chance to shine (which happens to be in a grand finale that now includes a grand total of twenty-five high kickers in gold lamé).
Revolutionary? The Chance Theater’s A Chorus Line is indeed that, but then again can audiences expect less from the theater that had the chutzpah to reinvent Robbins four summers back in their equally brilliant West Side Story.
With as huge (and hugely talented) a cast as A Chorus Line’s, I’ll refrain from playing favorites. (The list would simply be too long.) So talented is each one of these triple-threats in his or her own way that it’s easy to forget that some of them are as much as ten years younger than their parts are written.
Musical director Ryan O’Connell (who appears as onstage “rehearsal pianist” from time to time) conducts a sensational offstage band, joined by Jonathan Proctor, Saul Reynoso, Ryan Jesch, Jimmy Beall, and Jorge Zuniga.
Scenic designer Fred Kinney has done a bang-up job of converting the Cripe Stage into a black-walled, mirrored rehearsal room. Martha Carter lights Kinney’s set and Lock’s costumes quite excitingly indeed, with sound designer Ryan Brodkin providing an expert mix of amped voices and instrumentals … and more.
Nicole Schlitt is stage manager. Sophie Cripe is dramaturg. Christine Hinchee is assistant choreographer.
I must confess to having gone into Chance Theater’s A Chorus Line with trepidations. Could Nguyen, Clarke, and a “pre-Equity” cast (many of them still in college) actually pull this off?
I needed have fretted. Unlike the carbon-copy 2010 Broadway Revival National Tour (or every regional staging I’ve seen since then), Chance Theater’s A Chorus Line comes close to recapturing the excitement Broadway audiences must have felt back in 1975 when A Chorus Line changed musical theater for good
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
July 9, 2016
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio