Review by Shawn Maus of A Chorus Line: Covedale Theater
In an empty theatre, on a bare stage, casting for a new Broadway musical is almost complete. For 17 dancers, this audition is the chance of a lifetime. It’s what they’ve worked for – with every drop of sweat, every hour of training, every day of their lives. Winner of nine Tony Awards, including “Best Musical” and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, A Chorus Line is a truly inside show, putting the audience in the viewpoint of a director auditioning 17 dancers for eight spots in a Broadway musical. The story, originally staged in 1975, still resonates, but the production by Cincinnati Landmark Productions somehow lacks the emotional punch required. The script stands up strongly to revival, but Covedale did not entirely do it justice.
The characters portrayed in A Chorus Line are, for the most part, based upon the lives and experiences of Broadway dancers. This production could use fine-tuning in some of the dance routines but mainly in the technical aspects of the show, judging by the results on the second week’s opening night. It could also use a few more technically solid voices (shortcomings of timbre and pitch should only pop up in the humorous number about a tone-deaf character).
The dancing is truly the star in A Chorus Line, thanks to the choreography of Angela Kahle. Restaged choreography by Kahle intricately interpreted the dances of Michael Bennett (who originally conceived, directed and choreographed the show) for the Covedale stage. The mirrors lining the stage’s back wall put audience members in the performers’ shoes as if they were onstage dancing with them. The climactic audition sequence, exciting in its forceful kick-line precision, is still awesome.
It’s good to hear the colorful score by Marvin Hamlisch again, even if it sounds a little bittersweet now, given his untimely death at 68 in 2012. Michael Kennedy conducted a tight orchestral ensemble. Unfortunately, as good as the orchestra performed, there was a sense the ensemble didn’t gel together and certain characters needed some work. This is a shame in a show which is built upon the cast caring about each others’ struggles, and perhaps why certain key dramatic moments held little tension or interest. For example, Cassie, described as “too good for the chorus” by the director, who is supposed to express her desperation through dance, seemed to be desperate to get off the stage rather than to dance for her work and to land a spot on the line.
Two actors did stand out from the chorus line. Ben Goodman gives a classy performance as Paul, the gay Puerto Rican who struggles to open up about his painful past. Even though his monologue comes the second act, you can sense that his struggle is as real today as it would have been for audiences in the 70s. Goodman gives the audience—and “giving” is exactly what it is, an act of deep artistic generosity—a stunning monologue. Another stand-out was Jules Shumate, as Sheila, who was shimmering with attitude. Shumate’s sultry stares won over the crowd, especially in the final scene.
The show suffered from several technical problems. The capacity to misfire on the sound cues (or perhaps just underestimate its importance) has frequently been an issue at the Covedale and this production was no exception. The sound department often suffered from problems of balance, volume, miscues, and precision. Perhaps they should add more sound equipment instead of two bullhorn speakers at the proscenium that made for much of the singing to sound like it was a football game play-by-play announcer. Microphones cut in and out constantly, spotlights failed to hit their mark, and the poor actors just had to power through the chaos. We can only hope that they will sort out these issues before the run closes.
A Chorus Line has its stumbles, but it is a show that should be seen because of its all too infrequent performance of a classic piece, meeting our expectations with lots of leotards and leggings and mirrors. And the personal and financial struggles of performing artists still ring true even 40 years after the show’s debut.
A Chorus Line is playing through September 27.