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Each summer, the Hollywood Bowl features a popular Broadway musical thrown together over a handful of rehearsals. But this year’s A Chorus Line is different. Directed by Baayork Lee, who starred in the original production and was choreographer-director Michael Bennett’s dance captain, this staging is in distinctly qualified hands. Reuniting with Lee are seasoned performers Jason Tam and Mara Davi from the 2006 Broadway revival, as well as Olivier Award winner Leigh Zimmerman from the West End revival, and Sarah Bowden, reprising the key role of Cassie from German and Austrian productions.
This talented core offsets occasional lapses by relative musical neophytes like Sabrina Bryan (Dancing With the Stars), Disney heartthrob Ross Lynch (Austin & Ally) and Mario Lopez as Zach, the disembodied voice of the director who lords it over the hopefuls in a grueling audition process. It’s almost like casting by lottery, and with so little rehearsal time, it’s all but inevitable that an actor might occasionally stumble or hit a sour note. But the very nature of A Chorus Line, which shows us how tough it can be on the other side of the footlights, means that all is instantly forgiven.
First mounted in April 1975 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, A Chorus Line proved so popular that it was rushed to Broadway within a few months, where it stayed for 15 years, winning 10 Tonys and a Pulitzer. The 2006 revival ran two years and was followed by a national tour. Hewn from 24 hours of candid interviews with Broadway dancer-actors, the show features a bare stage with a god’s eye view of a line of desperate performers, waiting for their chance either to shine or get the stick.
How did a minimalist, existential musical with prominent themes of rejection and isolation become an overnight Broadway sensation? The answer can be found in writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s endearing and emotionally naked characterizations, owing much to the original interviews, as well as to Edward Kleben’s lyrics, combined with Marvin Hamlisch’s jazzy melodies. This is a show steeped in humanity, offering complex contrast to its bare-bones physical aesthetic.
If there is a single figure that stands out in A Chorus Line’s rambling narrative structure, it’s Zach’s ex-lover Cassie. Having achieved a measure of success on Broadway, she decamped for Los Angeles only to discover she’s not the star everyone says she is. After taking her bruised ego back to New York, Cassie has decided to start over again in the chorus, a place Zach feels is beneath her.
Originated by Tony-winner Donna McKechnie, Cassie has a show-stopping number, “The Music and the Mirror,” that articulates not only her own desperation and desire but that of the entire cast. It’s an impassioned homage to the creative impulse that drives artists of all stripes. Bowden is a stronger singer than a dancer in the role; her interpretation of Bennett’s flailing choreography is not just visceral but messy. To give her the benefit of the doubt, it might be her way of portraying the character’s unsettled feelings through movement.
Cassie’s story gives the audience their first real look at Zach, with Lopez returning to the role he took over in 2008 on Broadway. While he always sounds convincing, in the rare moments we see his face he looks like he’s acting. In a venue as vast as the Bowl, it wouldn’t matter except that jumbo video screens vie with the stage for viewers’ attention, giving us a good look at the performers even from a distance.
When the stage is emptied for another of the play’s highlights, Paul’s monologue, Tam triggers raw feelings while recalling the time his parents discovered he was working as a drag queen. Reprising his role from 2006, Tam exudes a measured and gradual emotional dissolution, convincingly searching for his words, grappling with sentiments he still hasn’t fully digested.
One of the show’s most beloved anthems is “What I Did for Love,” given a stirring rendition by Krysta Rodriguez (Spring Awakening), a Broadway pro whose delivery is so powerful she easily fills the cavernous Bowl, leading the cast to a cathartic crescendo that left the crowd enraptured.
Less fortunate is Bryan as Val, who performs the crowd-pleasing “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” a paean to the powers of plastic surgery to achieve the tits and ass so beloved by casting directors. Bryan’s ‘Dance’ is something less than ‘Ten,’ despite being known for her appearances on Dancing With the Stars, but her impressive level of commitment reflects the show’s unbreakable spirit.
Her male counterpart in the cast would have to be Lynch, a teeny-bopper fave who received plenty of applause and screams during final bows. As Mark Anthony, he brings an affable charm when he isn’t fading into the background in a secondary role that spares him the deeper challenges confronting his more seasoned castmates.
It would have been nice to see more of Robert Fairchild, fresh off his Tony nomination for An American in Paris. But the New York City Ballet principal is mostly confined to the ensemble. Along with choreographer Spencer Liff as Zach’s assistant, Fairchild sticks out like a diamond in the rough when he dances next to less supple performers like Lynch and Bryan. And while Zimmerman’s wise-cracking Sheila dominates numerous scenes with her statuesque figure, the West End transplant is so spot-on with her ribald ripostes that she leaves us wanting more.
Two years ago, the Hollywood Bowl presented Hair, a classic-rock musical, which, although it enjoyed a vibrant Broadway revival by director Diane Paulus in 2009, hasn’t aged well. The same cannot be said of A Chorus Line, a show that imparts powerful messages about isolation and self-doubt plaguing many in the arts. But if that were all it had to offer, it wouldn’t have had the universal appeal to become a modern classic.
In the end, the characters of A Chorus Line are all winners as they perform the rousing final number, “One,” outfitted in gold-sequined tails and top hats. They’re winners not because they did or didn’t get the part but because their passion and hope cannot be stifled by an uncaring world.
Cast: Sabrina Bryan, Robert Fairchild, Spencer Liff, Mario Lopez, Ross Lynch, Sarah Bowden, Mara Davi, Courtney Lopez, J. Elaine Marcos, Krysta Rodriguez, Jason Tam, Leigh Zimmerman, Cornelius Jones Jr., Denis Lambert, Ian Liberto, Tiana Okoye, Michael Starr, Kelsey Walston, Justin Michael Wilcox, Brandon Burks, Joven Calloway, Ayesha Cortinas, Maggie Darago, Eddie Gutierrez, Ashley Ruth Jones, Peter Marinaro, Charlie Nash, Jane Papageorge, Jessica Lea Patty, Momko Sugai, Leigt Wakeford
Director & choreographer: Baayork Lee, based on the work of Michael Bennett
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics: Edward Kleban
Book: James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Set designer: Robin Wagner
Lighting designer: Tom Ruzika
Costume designer: Thomas G. Marquez
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen
Orchestrations: Michael Gibson
Co-choreography: Bob Avian
Music director & conductor: Patrick Vaccariello
Presented by Hollywood Bowl and LA Phil, by arrangement with Tams-Witmark Music Library