“What does he want from me, who should I try to be? So many So many faces all around and here we go! I need this job—oh God—I need this show!” sings “Paul” one of the dancers hoping for their big break auditioning for a new Broadway show in “A Chorus Line”—the latest offering on “The Cripe Stage” at “The Chance Theater” in Anaheim California. However, don’t expect the same old standard interpretation of this contemporary classic musical though—“standard” has never been in the “Chance’s” vocabulary and for this new re-staging, audiences are being treated to a much more intimate and penetrating treatment to the show’s numerous otherwise familiar numbers and themes. Both a ‘Pulitzer-Prize’ and ‘Tony’ winner, this long acknowledged masterpiece features a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante with Music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by Edward Kleban, based on a concept by dance-legend Michael Bennett after he was part of several all-night dance-sessions at which a number of Broadway dancers met to discuss their lives and challenges being a “gypsy” (so-called for their practice of going from show to show primarily populating the chorus.) Inspired by what he heard, many of these actual stories became the basis for those heard throughout the show. Indeed, the score is made all the more remarkable hearing the way Kleban and Hamlisch so seamless transmogrified these real-life reminiscences into their amazingly honest and evocative songs.
The time is 1975, on the bare stage of an empty theater, casting for a hot new musical is almost complete—almost. For 17 dancers though, this audition will amount to more than a test of their grace and dexterity with some fancy movement. While it may be what they’ve worked for with every hour of training and every fiber of their being, as ”Zach” the Director-Choreographer of the show in question informs them all, he wants to find out ‘who’ they really are. “I’m looking for a strong dancing chorus; I need people that look terrific together and that can work together as a group, “ he says, “but there are some small parts that have to be played by the dancers I hire…so I’m going to ask you some questions. I just want to hear you talk and be yourselves” (Subsequent to this he also advises them that “…Being polite doesn’t interest me.”) Commencing with stories of their childhood, up through their adolescences and on to their lives as professional dancers and even beyond, to what they hope for when their time ‘tripping the light fantastic’ is done, this is an audition like they’ve never experienced before as each strives to land a much sought after job ‘on the line’.
Directed by the “Chance Theater’s” founding Artistic Director, Oanh Nguyen and performed without intermission, Nguyen for the most part keeps the action smooth and on-going, often riding on the pulsating melodies that accompany the truly eye-popping dance sequences. Likewise, he daringly defies convention here and there making the moments that one might readily assume to have the most resounding impact not always occur where (and by whom) one expects. Instead, it’s the smaller, hitherto un-noticed moments and performances that really stand-out with much more resonance. Unequivocally, it’s the smaller moments that triumph here! (Even the final eight chosen may not be who you’d expect.) Little wonder that the large ensemble endeavor titled “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” (–one of the longest musicalized sequences in this or any musical,) which gives equal and specific regard to everyone at some point, kind of sneaks up on you until it rates as full-on primal, pulsating, showstopper! Still another unique element to the show occurs during the sequence referred to as “The Tap Combination”. Depicting the dancers learning what will ultimately become their ‘big’ concluding production number “One” (–a song the show is particularly known for,) this gives viewers the opportunity to ‘hear’ what goes on in their minds as they undertake to learn their new routine.
Then again, this is a show that has ‘dance’ at its heart and in this regard it most definitely never disappoints! Aided by Assistant Choreographer, Christine Hinchee, Choreographer Hazel Clarke really astonishes with the larger numbers that involve the full-cast oft-times performing in unison, like “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love, (–at the tail end of which she cleverly throws in a bit of a knowing ‘homage’ to 60’s era dance shows like “Hullabaloo” on which Michael Bennett not only performed but met his ‘muse’ and future wife, Donna McKechnie–Broadway’s original “Cassie”.) Not that individual moments are overlooked though—her crafting of “The Music And The Mirror” is rhythmic, measured and mesmerizing, while she also wonderfully opens up “Beautiful At The Ballet” (usually sung as a simple trio with little movement) to include some pristine ballet maneuvers as well, which literally makes the number come alive. Furthermore, the finale is like the stunning “piece de résistance” of the entire endeavor bestowing the entire company (joined by all the understudies as well) in dazzling gold tuxedos for a big, bright, splashy conclusion that is worthy of this, what’s been hailed as “a magnificent musical veriteʹ!”
In the key role of the Director-Choreographer “Zach”, Ben Green provides a stabilizing and appropriately commanding presence throughout. Usually relegated almost entirely to just a voice at the back of the auditorium, in one of this production’s most refreshing re-conceptualizations, here Zach is a much more an active presence—even leading the big opening “audition’ combination, “God, I hope I Get It”; he also demonstrates a few classy moves of his own backing up Cassie’s dynamic solo piece, “The Music And The Mirror”, thus subtly conveying a physical suggestion of their deeper back-story that’s frequently overlooked or marginalized in other versions. As “Cassie”, his former girlfriend/protégé who desperately desires a chance to “start over’ after maturing beyond the relative confines of the chorus, Tatiana Alvarez also hits all the right notes. Both cheerfully confident of her abilities while also staggeringly vulnerable, her performance–especially during her monologue leading up to “Mirror” proves what considerable acting chops she has as well. Add to it, Ms. Alvarez has a fairly prodigious voice which makes her solo far more than just a frame-work for an exquisite dance intermezzo wherein her moves are crisp and sultry, making this an absolute highlight of the show’s second half. Moreover, Xavier Castaneda’s “Paul San Marco” (nee “Ephrain Ramirez”) is excruciatingly introverted–and most significantly– believably exposed as he shyly tries to smile through his most affecting and vulnerable memory of a traumatic childhood and adolescence. When Zach asks him why he would change his name from Puerto Rican to Italian he guilelessly replies; “I just wanted to be somebody new…I’m not exactly proud of my past.”
Taken from Author Nicholas Dante’s real life story, this is one of the most moving monologues ever written for the stage—musical or drama., and Castanda’s very reticence makes what he’s relating that much more empathetic and endearing which has us ‘wanting’ to root for him. Not to be overlooked either is Angeline Mirenda as “Diana Morales” (“—and I didn’t change it ‘cause I figured ‘ethnic’ was in!” she declares proudly.) Her most momentous moment is in leading the cast in the show’s ultimate ‘eleven o’clock’ ode “What I Did For Love”, that speaks not just to Dance, but all kinds of art and what artists will endure for it. Boasting some of the very best chorale work all evening, in Ms. Mirenda’s measured stewardship, it starts deceptively soft and straight forward, building tenderly towards a brilliant crescendo—which, (as it should be) makes for a pretty potent group statement through song. In addition, Christopher Mosely as “Ritchie Walters” is worth waiting for! He doesn’t simply take center-stage with his jivey “Give Me The Ball” interlude—he commands it–and then some!
Yet, the real surprises lie in the performances from the supporting characters that often make the most impact. These include Camron Zelinger As “Sheila Bryant”, who gets all the very best laughs as the sarcastic, somewhat jaded chorine who frets about turning 30 before revealing a startling amount of pain and insecurity behind her barrage of wisecracks during “Everything Was Beautiful At The Ballet” in which we learn (like so many others vying for a position) she was the product of a cold and calamitous upbringing (“Life with my dad wasn’t ever a picnic–more like a ‘come as you are’,” she croons; “when I was five I remember my mother dug earrings out of the car.”) Joining her, Kristen Daniels also has her share of laudable moments as “Maggie Winslow”. Tugging at the heartstrings in the most lyrical way, she brings, not so much a pitiable quality to her part in the already wistful “Everything Was Beautiful At The Ballet”, but rather a faintly forlorn ‘could-have been’ nuance, before coming through again with her sweetly intoned “Mother Dear Mother” portion of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…”. Ben Heustuss too, exhibits refreshing likeability as “Bobby Mills”, a young gay man from Buffalo, New York with dreams of being a movie star and who, we’re informed, was a graduate of “P.S. Shit’. He similarly bestows his share of the gag-lines with commendable authenticity and timing during his comic monologue that fronts “What Should I Say”, sung by the others behind him. (“I was always thinking of these spectacular ways to commit suicide” he breezes dryly; “but then I realized to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.”) Joseph Ott also possesses a full and resonant voice as “Al Deluca”—the newlywed with the habit of finishing his wife Christine’s (portrayed by a vivacious Emily Abeles.) sentences. Together, they supply this quirky little duet loads of laughs.
Meanwhile Victoria Rafael as “Val Clark” (“But my parents think I’m Margaret Mary Houlihan!”) herself exudes a brand of PG sexuality that’s along the lines of ‘Betty Boop” or ‘Ginger Grant” as opposed to ‘grittier’ vixens like “Betty Page’ of “Ginger Lynn”, keeping her well-delivered (if euphemistically named) “Dance Ten, Looks Three” more on the ribald and ironic side rather than anything overtly salacious, while in the same way Garrett Engle makes the most of his time in the spotlight as “Don Kerr”—most notably during Don’s reminisces about the summer he turned fifteen and his first job working at a strip club with “Lola Latores and her ‘twin forty fours’!”
Fred Kinney’s deceptively simple scenic design contributes much more than just a plain, black unadorned stage, incorporating as it does a line of mobile mirrors situated at the rear which themselves obscure the full five piece band just behind them while Musical Director Ryan O’Connell serves on-stage as the lone piano accompaniment (such as one would genuinely find at a real audition of this nature.) This is also the case with Martha Carter’s vibrant lighting design that shrewdly uses hints of looming color to suggest mood as with “Cassie’s” sultry red dance during “Music And The Mirror” or Val’s “Dance Ten Looks Three”; then at the finale, it’s a plethora of pulsating white chaser lights which add immensely to the great, glittery gold-lame clad fancifulness of this big fantasy finale , that’s made all the more glamorous thanks to Bradley Lock’s breathtaking ‘top hat and tails’ costume designs .
A sterling production that’s categorically not the same old ‘song and dance’, after previewing from July 1st through July 8th, “A Chorus Line” officially opened on Saturday, July 9th , where it has already been extended through Sunday, August 7th 2016. “The Chance Theater” @ The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center’ is located at 5522 E. La Palma Ave. in Anaheim, CA. Show-times are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm & 8:00 pm with Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. Tickets and reservations may be obtained either by phone, by calling (888) 455-4212, or on-line by visiting: www.ChanceTheater.com.
Production Photos By Doug Catiller At “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Oanh Nguyen, Hazel Clarke, Ryan O’Connell And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2016 Production Of “A Chorus Line” For Making This Story Possible.