Theater Reviews

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Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (through July 6)

As musicals go, "A Chorus Line" always has been in a class by itself. The show might not be "The best musical. Ever." as it bills itself, but it's certainly one of the most groundbreaking and lucrative. The money it brought in with its record-breaking 15-year run on Broadway from 1975-90 helped keep Joe Papp's Public Theater afloat for many years.

For its time, the show broke all the rules. Instead of starting with Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's songs and James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book, director Michael Bennett largely improvised from interviews with professional dancers who spoke candidly about their childhood dreams, disappointments and the often harsh circumstances of a dancer's life. This was reality programming ahead of its time, and if the musical seems fairly conventional now, that's probably because the show helped create these new conventions.

The touring production at the Ahmanson Theatre, under Bob Avian's direction, does a first-rate job delivering what this show has to offer -- not just the legs, leotards, spangles and hats but also the loose-limbed bodies and bruised souls inhabiting them.

The personal stories of each of the 17 dancers we meet while auditioning for the chorus in a Broadway show are woven together like strands in a fine tapestry. As they step forward to share their lives with us, the show's perspective enlarges and deepens, and so does the metaphor suggested by the title: We can't all be stars; most of us are destined for the chorus line. But if you learn the steps, do them well and do them -- at least partly -- for love, it's a pretty satisfying life after all.

There's another side to "Chorus Line" that I've always liked. In spirit the show is closer to "Waiting for Godot" than it is to "Oklahoma." The piece opens on a bare stage filled with dancers, lost in a landscape every bit as existentially barren as the one in which Vladimir and Estragon find themselves. But instead of waiting for Godot to arrive, the 17 dance tramps are waiting for someone almost as godlike -- the director -- to decide their fate.

At first we only hear his disembodied voice booming out of the darkness, asking questions and giving orders like the supreme being he is or perhaps aspires to be. Later, the director, Zach (a polished Michael Gruber), actually materializes and turns out to be (somewhat) human after all.

Between the metaphor, the metaphysics and the music, there's a lot going on in "Chorus Line" besides high kicks.

Cast: Michael Gruber, Nikki Snelson, Emily Fletcher, Natalie Hall, Gabrielle Ruiz, Kevin Santos, Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Anthony Wayne. Book: James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. MUSIC: Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics: Edward Kleban. Director: Bob Avian

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