The late Michael Bennett famously dedicated “A Chorus Line” to “anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step … anywhere.” That dedication, which ran in the playbill for the show’s original production, is broad enough to encompass most of us, as Bennett well knew. It also describes the crowd that should see Porchlight Music Theatre’s winningly intimate new staging, helmed by Brenda Didier. It’s a singular sensation that deserves a wide audience.
When it opened on Broadway in 1975, “A Chorus Line” was transformative. Conceived by Bennett, the director and choreographer, the show brought musical theater’s anonymous ensemble dancers into the spotlight. Bennett tape-recorded an all-night rap session with a group of dancers talking about their work, their backgrounds, their family lives, and what made them go into show business.
‘A Chorus Line’ ★★★★ When: Through May 31 Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Tickets: $39 – $66 Info: porchlightmusictheatre.org Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with no intermission
Working with book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban, Bennett shaped those dancers’ stories into a loose narrative about an audition for an unnamed new musical, in which the director interrogates the hopefuls about their personal lives in between putting them through their paces. Hamlisch and Kleban extracted anecdotes to turn into tender memory songs about escaping troubled home lives at the ballet, or contrapuntal ensemble numbers touching on the horrors and revelations of adolescence.
It may not sound like much on paper, but the musical was a sensation. When it made the move from New York’s Public Theater to Broadway’s Shubert in the fall of 1975, New York Times critic Clive Barnes called it “one of the greatest musicals ever to hit Broadway, and quite possibly the simplest and the most imaginative.” “A Chorus Line” won nine Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the original production ran for 15 years — which remained the record for longest Broadway run until “Cats” overtook it.
“A Chorus Line” has been a regular offering at the big musical houses in Chicago’s suburbs in recent years; it’s had productions at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre, Aurora’s Paramount Theatre and the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, among others. But its last appearance in the city limits was a decade ago: A national tour based on the 2006 Broadway revival stopped in at what’s now the James M. Nederlander Theatre 10 years ago this month.
The simplicity of Bennett’s original staging and the specificity of his choreography — and the 9 million or so audience members who saw it across 15 years — mean that most revivals and regional productions tend to replicate rather than reinvent. That was true of that 2009 tour, too, but at the time I found it felt rather soulless, a copy of a copy of a copy that mastered the dancing but fell short on characterizations that connected with the audience. And since this largely plotless show relies on our investment in these characters, that was a problem.
Not so here. Didier, herself an accomplished dancer and choreographer (though choreo credit here goes to Christopher Chase Carter), evinces a deep empathy for these dancers’ backstories, giving every set piece room to breathe within the solid, alchemical architecture of Bennett and company’s creation.
Her cast is mostly quite young; several of the actors are still undergrads at the city’s major theater schools. But that’s appropriate for a piece about a career path where crossing 30 puts you near retirement. The actors here all nicely convey the urgent, ineffable pull that leads one to pursue such a precarious business, and they execute the dance sequences impressively. (I’ll never not be impressed by the technical proficiency required to intentionally dance poorly, as they’re required to do when “learning” the audition routines.)
The intimacy of Porchlight’s new venue goes a long way toward this production’s smashing success. The Ruth Page Center’s stage is not exactly Broadway-sized; it’s barely wide enough to accommodate the 17 hopefuls in a single-file line, and group numbers can seem a little cramped.
But they’re never imprecise, and the same can be said of Didier’s staging. The close quarters require a rigor to the choreography and its execution, but also let us see every detail in the movement and read every emotion in the acting — from Adrienne Velasco-Storr’s moving rendition of “Nothing” to Alejandro Fonseca’s crucial monologue as Paul.
Following on triumphant productions of “Gypsy” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” this highly engaging “Chorus Line” concludes a remarkably rewarding season for this company. Porchlight is shining brighter than ever.