Friday, August 5, 2016

Reinvigorated: A Chorus Line at Canada's Stratford Festival

"Dance Ten, Looks Three" is a funny little number at the heart of A Chorus Line that makes light of the plastic surgery undertaken by a super talented but previously flat-chested dancer in order to get a leg up, so to speak, on her profession. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, the song is a barely veiled act of desperation that’s been played for laughs ever since the late Michael Bennett first staged his hit musical on Broadway in 1975. In reviving A Chorus Line for Canada’s Stratford Festival this season, director/choreographer Donna Feore honours that tradition, and then some. Her punchy production, at the Festival Theatre until the end of October, gives the show’s rich veins of humour plenty of room to rush forward and invigorate the dramatic action. Feore is a masterful hand at character as well as comic timing and the performance she coaches out of Julia McLellan, the singer/dancer/actress playing the pneumatically enhanced Val, emerges as a show stopper that tickles the audience to the point it shouts out loud, roaring with approval. Enthusiasm for this powerful production continues right through to the gold-spangled finalé in which the remaining group of dancers high-step it to a repeat of "One," the song that perhaps best of all captures A Chorus Line’s chiseled focus on the individual within the group. It also serves to capture what’s great about this particular show. It is, to quote from Kleban’s lyrics, a singular sensation – an invigorating, compassionate, oftentimes hilarious hi-octane joy ride that while reverential of the Bennett original, succeeds in taking the musical in new directions. A Chorus Line reinvigorated.

As one of the most performed Broadway musicals in the world, the story of A Chorus Line will be familiar to most. But to recap: A motley crew of 24 hopefuls assemble in a New York theatre to audition for the chance to dance and sing in the chorus of a major Broadway show. The successful candidates will never see their names in lights. They are destined to be the feathers in the boa of an unnamed star, the fat around the meat of an expensive extravaganza. All assembled understand that they are will never be more than second tier. Ego did not drive them to the try-out. Economics did. The opening number, "I Hope I Get," makes that clear. They will settle for anonymity as long as there’s a pay cheque at the end of the gig. The 24 dancers are very quickly reduced to 17 and among that group only eight will advance to appear in show. To determine who makes the cut, the fictional show’s pushy director Zach (superbly played Stratford actor Juan Chioran) asks the hopefuls to talk about their childhoods and also why they dance. “I think it would be better if I knew something about you,” he says through a microphone from his Wizard of Oz perch beyond the footlights where the dancers can barely see him. The personal stories become danced and sung soliloquies that foreground dance as a refuge and a reason for living. But some of the confessionals also touch on lonely childhoods and sexual abuse, dashed dreams and raw ambition.

For the performers lined up at the back of the stage Zach’s psychological probing is more arduous and painful than his relentlessly athletic choreography. “Who am I anyway?” sings Paul, the character who will tell the most harrowing story of all, communicating a sentiment shared by his fellow hoofers for whom being seen and not heard is core to a dancer’s sense of identity. It’s an emotional striptease, revealing light and dark parts of the human psyche. The four women and four men who move forward from the audition ironically return to the ranks of the anonymous, nameless once more. But that’s show biz  as Feore knows only too well. A Stratford veteran whose impressive resume includes last season’s stellar restaging of The Sound of Music and Crazy For You, the red-hot Gershwin musical in 2014, Feore is a past dancer who approaches A Chorus Line like a love letter to a profession she can’t live without. In her program notes, the wife of Canadian actor Colm Feore writes that Bennett’s musical about dancers at a try-out, a compelling metaphor for the hopes and dashed dreams characterizing most of humanity, is what first drove her to put on a pair of dancing shoes as a girl growing up in Dawson Creek, B.C. She has never looked back despite the road to her success having hardly been easy. The life of a dancer never is. Punishing, penurious and prone to injuries, the backstage realities are not glamourous.

Juan Chioran as Zach and Danya Tietzen as Cassie.

Having personally weathered the emotional roller-coaster ride of the theatrical gypsy, Feore has seen the crowded dressing rooms along with the patched up holes in a perspiration-stained leotard. She has lived the frustrations and the heartache, and she has persevered because like all dancers she knows first-hand that dance is that rare human experience, an art of the body which unleashes the spirit, permitting it to hover above the body. It’s transformative. Dance is a wordless act of intensely expressed feeling that dancers will tell you is unlike any other experience on earth. It is why they do it, regardless the hardships. It is also why A Chorus Line continues to thrill, more than 40 years after its debut. It allows even non-dancers access to the simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating world of the theatrical professional, the sweat along with the glory. The audience makes a direct connection to the dance through the personalities spotlighted during the course of the show. Feore respects that each dancer has his or her own story to tell and while faithful to the original book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante she punctuates the poignancy through artful staging in which stillness, combined with frenetic movement, gives bold articulation to the dancer within the dance.

The liberties she takes with Bennett’s choreography, co-created with Bob Avian, are noteworthy and not only because they have given A Chorus Line a refreshed look. For the first time since Bennett’s death in 1987 at the age of 44 of AIDS-related lymphoma, his estate has allowed someone to reshape A Chorus Line according to their own vision. It bears repeating that this has never happened before. But Feore had a unique challenge in wanting to bring A Chorus Line to Stratford. The Festival Theatre, which at 1,800 seats is the largest of Stratford’s the four, has a thrust stage extending into the auditorium to permit the audience to sit on three sides. Feore would need to adapt the original production to fit the unusual configuration. She explained her dilemma to Bennett executor, John Breglio, who, no doubt taking into consideration Feore’s reputation for excellence, granted her to make the necessary changes. These are mostly of a technical nature. Given that there is no proscenium arch. Feore needed to choreograph in the round to accommodate it, a goal counter to the straight lines of Bennett’s confessional chorus. And yet, with the help of set designer Michael Gianfranceso who mounted a wall of mirrors at the rear of the stage and lighting designer Michael Walton who created illuminated pathways of light for the dancer/actors to traverse, Feore has made it work. Her production soars over what is essentially a confined space. Dancers spiral and curve through her elliptical patterns of movement. As they orbit the stage their parabolic figures suggest infinity. Which is fitting. As A Chorus Line makes clear, dancers come and go. It’s the dancing that never stops.

Yet while focused on dancers and dancing, A Chorus Line is a whole work of theatre. The performers are what are known in the business as triple threats, dancers/singers/actors operating out of one body. Like the characters they portray on stage, these Stratford players, some seasoned, others new, work hard for the money. Their reward is a standing ovation that greets them after every show, and deservedly so. Feore’s has assembled a crackerjack team. Laura Burton’s musical direction and Peter McBoyle’s sound design send their voices flying as high as their leaps across the stage. Feore’s inspired direction, meanwhile, ensures they also deliver acting performances equally strong and synchronized. Standouts include Matt Alfano as Mike who opens the show with a rousing performance of "I Can Do That" and, wow, can he ever. As Diana Morales, Cynthia Smithers gives a touching rendition of "Nothing," a song about soul-searching, that really is quite something in the way it moves the listener to hang on every word. Colton Curtis as Mark, the ensemble’s youngest dancer, exudes boyish charm as he recounts his first confusing experience with a wet dream during "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love," a group song exploring adolescent sexuality. Ayrin Mackie is hilarious as the wisecracking and seen-it-all Sheila, a character who uses her sex to advance centre stage. Mackie shows off her lyrical side when she teams with Ashley Arnett as Bebe and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Maggie to perform "At the Ballet," the song that more than any other in A Chorus Line highlights dance as a form of escape. Dayna Tietzen as Cassie, the aging hoofer once formerly romantically attached to Zach, is not as skilled a dancer as she is a singer – her steps lack flow -- and so her performance of the wordless portion of "The Music and the Mirror" fails to convince that she is a former headliner down on her luck, as the script would have you believe. Tietzen executes the six-minute dance solo competently but without the waves of emotion that might have carried it to greater heights of expression. Yet, her performance is not without its grace notes. When she shouts, “A dancer’s got to dance!” she has everyone’s attention. She might be acting. But she’s telling the truth.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.  

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