On Stage: Underscoring a New “Line”

Photos: Matt Polk

The “line” is part and parcel of the dancer’s vocabulary in many forms.  One of the most important is a beauty of line in the movement. But dancers flirt with other lines as well. Making a bee line for class. Putting it on the line every day in the studio, at risk of injury. Kick lines. Keeping in line with other dancers in complex choreography.

And, of course, A Chorus Line, one of the treasures of the Broadway stage. This is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the über-talented artists who are usually part of the background scenery in a show. But Michael Bennett ended that when he put them front and center in his ground-breaking 1975 production.

Now it’s back in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center for the Civic Light Opera’s major new, must-see revival under the direction of the original Connie, Baayork Lee. It seems strange that this show, where only rehearsal clothes and a large mirror backdrop service the production can now be considered a period piece, given that dance has changed so much, from its technique to Broadway’s current choreographic direction of blending the movement seamlessly with the dramatic thread.

Certainly this was apparent in the recent revival of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, where the dancers, trained on today’s hyper-flexible standards and competition lifestyle, changed the impetus of this landmark musical with loose-limbed kicks and jumps instead of the inherent tension and explosive control to be found in the ’50’s recreation of  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Not so with this “Line,” where Ms. Lee lovingly recreated the original choreography by Mr. Bennett and Bob Avian. The cast obviously had a wealth of information about the jazz Broadway style of the ’70’s and the discipline to execute it.

At Sunday night’s performance, the now-familiar steps had a joyous spring to them. Surprisingly it became a fresh-faced look to these veteran eyes of numerous productions, from high school to Broadway.

There were a few glitches to be sure. The ballet audition sequence had overblown porte bras and Frank, the boy in the headband, wasn’t believable as he continually stared at his feet. The womens’ top register in the chorus numbers seemed a tad thin and there were still a handful of missed notes.

But those problems were, in the end, minute in a performance that mined the performers’ stories in compelling fashion and came so, so close to the award-winning standard set by the original cast nearly forty years ago.

Ms. Lee’s smart casting choices, a blend of veterans from the Broadway revival and various tours (A Chorus Line family?), paid off.  Point Park University graduate Nadine Isenegger (Cassie) led the way, exhibiting much of the unbridled passion of the original Donna McKechnie.

Bryan Knowlton’s Paul, shy and awkward, but a focal point in the finale, still grabbed the heartstrings when he went back to his beginnings, where he was bullied, quit school and joined a drag production, which his parents’ subsequently discovered. While the tale of his emerging homosexuality didn’t carry the shock value of the original, he still managed to make it meaningful.

All of the major highlights of the smashing Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban score were there — Diana’s (Gabrielle Ruiz) powerful rendition of the show’s anthem, “What I Did For Love,” Val’s (Carleigh Bettiol) sassy “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” Mike’s (Shane Rhoades) bell-like voice and pristine technique in “I Can Do That,” Kristine (Hilary Michael Thompson) and Al’s (Theo Lencicki) quick-witted repartee in “Sing!.”  And Emily Fletcher’s drip-dry Sheila folded in with Bebe (Gina Philistine) and Maggie (Emily Rice) for a sweet tribute in “At the Ballet.”

Already this cast was acting like a top-notch company, leading me to add one more phrase of note. It was hard not to fall hook, “line” and sinker in love with this production.

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