The script for A Chorus Line was workshopped from real-life stories of a diverse group of dancers – some about their struggles on Broadway, some just about their lives and growing up. The result is a candid two-hour-plus sharing session in real time (NB: there’s no interval, so go to the bathroom beforehand), a collection of recollections that takes place in an audition studio, where the demanding director is getting to know his potential cast.
Don't expect spectacular set changes, flashy costumes and props, or an epic plot à la Wicked – or even re-enactments of the dancers’ stories. Everything takes place in that one audition room, where a group of everymen and everywomen bare their souls and share sometimes hilarious, sometimes gut-wrenching but always relateable and riveting tales, whether through monologues or beautiful, brilliant songs. The most dramatic thing you actually see onstage is someone hurting his knee. But if you’d like more spectacle with your showbiz, (like some of the sleeping seven year-olds and phone-checking adults I saw at the performance), you might not need to read the rest of this review – because I found A Chorus Line to be wonderful in many ways, glitz and glamour or not.
Despite premiering in 1975, the struggles still seem real almost four decades later: maybe more to many of us who watch So You Think You Can Dance with their thrilled or tearful contestants. Indeed, A Chorus Line has been publicised as the original reality show, and each of the 17 remaining dancers vying for just eight places in an ensemble are as distinct as William Hung and Fantasia Barrino, and all are as hungry.
Director Baayork Lee has kept most of the show like its original Broadway debut. Good job, because it works. Mirrors which appear periodically give the audience the dancers’ perspective, complete with rigged-up lights and intimidating audience members. The auditioners onstage gaze up at a mostly unseen director who seems to be sitting in the gods. And as the characters direct their pleas and songs to the proverbial gods, the straight-talking director and the audience, the latter feels the full force of their prayer-like desperation and honesty.
Expect candid confessions of teenage wet dreams, cross-dressing for jobs, cosmetic surgery and the dead-end, short-lived nature of a dance career. Standout performances include those of Debora Krizak, a gorgeous singer competely owning the part of the preening, almost-over-the-hill blonde Sheila, who is forced to reveal her true accent and self. Also impressive are Sian Johnson as the scatterbrained Kristine, singing about not being able to sing; the adorable, rich-voiced Karlee Misipeka as Diana, reminiscing on her bizarre high-school acting classes; and the amazing Anita Louise Combe as Cassie, a failed soloist begging to return to the dance chorus, who had me in the palm of her hand (and in tears) during a long song and monologue.
Only a handful of actors left me wanting more when given their moments to shine. Hayley Winch is spunky and delightful as the hot, blonde Val (who bought the tits and ass necessary to her career), but doesn’t belt out the notes so comfortably, and consequently the song ‘Dance: Ten, Looks: Three’ falls short of a climax. Likewise William Centurion, playing the macho Al from the Bronx. Leah Lim and Kurt Douglas, playing tiny Asian Connie and Afro-American Richie, never fully embrace their characters, doing too much or too little respectively, though Lim has a lovely voice.
Speaking of uncomfortable moments, the only part of the story that felt far-fetched was when demanding director Zach (played by Joshua Horner in Sydney) emerged from his eyrie and came on stage, either to console a character or to reveal his humanity through a past failed romance. A Chorus Line is about auditioners, to whom directors should seem mysterious, cruel overlords clamouring for impossible results. Making Zach human by trying to give him an empathetic backstory made this scene feel like a soap-opera.
Overall, A Chorus Line seems to retain all the truth and beauty from its rave-reviewed, multi-award-winning debut in the 1970s, taking the audience on an overwhelming, comprehensive journey through the life of a performer. It’s a show you’ll love – that is, unless you’re expecting Wicked.
Time Out's interview with star Debora Krizak.