When it opened in 1975, A Chorus Line was viewed as one of the greatest musicals ever to hit Broadway. More than four decades later, a new production at Arlington’s Signature Theatre seems as contemporary as ever. By now the songs (music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban) are so familiar that the audience might be tempted to sing along. The dancing (with the original choreography by Michael Bennett refreshed by Signature’s Denis Jones), challenges members of the talented cast to stay on their toes and put their best foot forward (pun intended), which they do time and time again with breathtaking skill. But what really holds A Chorus Line together is the book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.
Zach (Matthew Risch), a take no prisoners director, is putting together a chorus line. He has resumes and head shots from those auditioning, but is looking for something more. He can see their physical work, but he wants to learn more about what makes them tick. Where were they born? What was their family situation? And the central question: why do they want to be a dancer? It’s a group encounter, and while most are reluctant at first to step out of line and talk, soon the floodgates open. Some of the confessions are funny, others serious, and a few, heartbreaking. And while the central theme is dance, the individual stories are universal. We may not all want to be dancers, but at some point, like these young men and women, we struggle to find our footing.
Signature’s production soars. This superb cast not only can dance, but can sing and act. The stage set, scenic design by Jason Sherwood, is bare, with a simple horizontal mirror running midway along the back wall. Additional mirrors are lowered onto the stage for the centerpiece solo dance number, “The Music and the Mirror,” performed by Emily Tyra as Cassie. Throughout the two-hour running time (with no intermission), Director Matthew Gardiner keeps the action flowing, the dancers skillfully weave in and out of line and around each other with ease. Costumes by Sarah Cubbage, besides being colorful and fun, help to visually define each individual through clothing and footwear choices. Musical Director Jon Kalbfleisch deftly conducts the nine-member orchestra.
There are no weak links in this dancing chain, but a few performers stand out. As Diana, Samantha Marisol Gershman performs two of the show’s best known songs: “Nothing,” a lament about surviving an acting teacher from hell; and “What I Did for Love,” answering the question of choosing the demanding, and possibly short-lived, career of dance. Taking on the latter song, which has been recorded by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Josh Groban, might have been intimidating. But Gershman’s performance is strong, sure, and beautiful. A recording in her future? (We hope.)
Emily Tyra, who played a doctor on CBS’s Code Black, once displayed her dancing talents during a dream sequence in an episode titled “Better Angels.” Her solo performance before a trio of mirrors, is lithe and graceful, yet emotional. Cassie and Zach were once an item, but she left him when his career became all consuming and she was unwilling to climb that competitive ladder with him. Back to New York from L.A., she now has to start at the bottom and needs him to give her a chance. Risch, recognizable from his TV roles in Modern Family and How to Get Away with Murder, sits high up in the audience and exists as a voice during most of the show. Coming on stage for the encounter with Cassie, he bullies her as she performs in the line, revealing that he, too, has much healing ahead.
As Paul, Jeff Gorti can surely dance, but it’s his powerful monologue that the audience will remember. Pushed by Zach, Paul talks about dropping out of school, coming to terms with his sexuality, and the conflicting messages from his family. Alone on the stage, Gorti’s physical movements, hugging himself at times for reassurance, accentuate the poignancy of his story.
Maria Rizzo never disappoints. A familiar face at Signature and a local favorite, she manages to own each role she takes on. Her Sheila begins as a sassy, almost over the dancing hill broad. But when she talks about her upbringing, the cracks in her tough shell begin to show. And when she’s not chosen for the line, the tears flow freely. Rizzo also gets to shine in “At the Ballet,” joined by Jullian Wessel and Kayla Pecchioni, who earned spontaneous applause for her soaring soprano.
The company numbers – “I Hope I Get It,” which opens the show and “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” – are well staged. And the singular sensation finale, “One,” is as exhilarating as one expects. When the performers emerge in their dazzling outfits, one by one for the final number, there’s an opportunity to applaud each dancer. As they join together in that famous line, the kicks and precision somehow makes all that hard work worth all the sacrifices and answers the question: why dance?
Photos by Christopher Mueller
A Chorus Line
4200 Campbell Avenue
Through January 5, 2020