Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.
You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.
So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.
Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.
Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.
The other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.
Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.
It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.
John Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?
Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.
Sheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.
But the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do really well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.
So I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!
PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!