It’s been over three years since we visited the Curve Theatre, and it was a true delight to return to this wonderful modern building with its hugely useful stages and spaces and lively, modern vibe. More to the point, it’s been over eight years since the London Palladium’s magnificent revival of A Chorus Line, and frankly, it’s been too damn long a wait to see it again. It’s no secret; A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time – I saw it eight times as a teenager at the Drury Lane in the 70s, including its final performance which was a tear-jerking experience of all of its own (although not as tear-jerking as the last night of the Palladium production!) Since then I’ve seen it in Sheffield, in Oxford and on Broadway, plus another four times at the Palladium. For someone who doesn’t tend to go back to a show unless it’s super-special, I think that demonstrates how super-special it is to me.
In case you don’t know, A Chorus Line is all about a group of dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical. They are quickly whittled down to a final 17, from whom Zach, the choreographer and Larry, his assistant, must pick a final 8 – four boys, four girls. At first, you the audience play the game of Who Would I Choose? But as it goes on, you give in to the show’s main message that everyone is special, and there are no winners or losers. Selecting a final eight is only one of the harsh realities of a dancer’s life that is explored in the show; the dancers had no choice but to live that life because it’s what they did for love. One of the many reasons it’s my favourite show is that no other is so full of positivity, and appreciation of talent and everything that’s good in life. Despite Zach’s necessary ruthlessness, the show is so overwhelmingly kind; and that’s an attribute that is in very short supply in today’s cancel-cultural, governmental gaslighting society. We all have our part to play in life; I’ll take Chorus, if you’ll take me.
I was nervous of seeing this production because, where it comes to A Chorus Line, I tend to be a pompous purist. In the past, the further a production departs from Michael Bennett’s original choreography and staging, or Theoni V. Aldredge’s costume design, or Marvin Hamlisch’s orchestration, the less I enjoy it. And don’t even speak to me of the abomination that is Richard Attenborough’s film. I was also concerned that it might be rushed. The original Drury Lane production lasted 2 hours and ten minutes. They shaved five minutes off that for the Palladium production. This production lasts 1 hour 50 minutes. How are they going to manage that?
The answer to that question is that it’s very pacey! There are a couple of moments when I thought the pathos was slightly lost due to our not having the time to take in the true impact of some characters’ emotions and fears, But I’m thrilled to tell you that it’s a resounding super success all the way through! Three seconds into the show and my goosebumps had goosebumps. Time and again I literally shook with emotion at what I was seeing. To be honest, there are a few directorial decisions that I don’t agree with, but nothing that in any remote way dents the inherent brilliance of this show.
Does the new production treat the original text and story with respect? YES! The programme makes it clear that we are in 1975. The only departure from the original text is the very sensible replacing the dancers’ years of birth with their age when they’re doing their opening introduction sequence. Otherwise, all the original references are there. I was expecting the dancers’ idols like Troy Donahue, Maria Tallchief, Robert Goulet etc to have been updated, but they weren’t. Judy Turner still pretends her real name is Lana Turner – that’s a return to the original from other productions. I hope those old names don’t mystify new younger audience members. Val’s bold verse for her And… sequence which includes the line tied up and raped at seven, has been kept although it had been previously replaced by something more anodyne in the Palladium production. So we’re strictly 1975. Problem one: the first camcorder was released in 1983. So having Larry double-up as a video camera man, filming deeply into the dancers’ faces and projected onto the back wall, simply wouldn’t have happened in 1975. Added to that, he gets in the way of the action, and the visual projection is very slightly out of synch with the sound, so it acts as an obstacle to communication rather than an addition, which I sense is what was intended. For me, the video camera action was unnecessary and a big no-no.
Does the choreography give off at least the same amount of joy as Bennett’s original? YES! In fact many of the routines still use a lot of the Bennett signature tricks and pay homage to his original work. I never thought that his staging of the finale could possibly be improved. I was wrong. Whilst I love the iconic Bennett choreography, Ellen Kane’s new routine uses the full stage with such overwhelming joy that the audience is stunned into intense, heart-in-mouth appreciation. In the original production, there’s no further curtain call after the lights dim on the high-kicking dancers, and you start the applause from the beginning of the number. In this production, Paul starts off with an eloquent contemporary dance solo (I note that the fantastic Jonathan Goddard is an assistant choreographer on the show – I bet he had a hand in that) that merges into the boys performing their part of One, before the girls join in. Significantly, there was no applause during this number. But once the curtain was down, the audience went hysterical.
Is the music performed with at least the same richness and expression as the original? Given Tamara Saringer’s excellent band comprises of just seven musicians in comparison with, say, a full scale orchestra in the pit of the Palladium or Drury Lane, their musical richness is phenomenal. The arrangements have naturally had to be altered but remain beautifully evocative and strongly musical throughout; a slight exception perhaps with the musical arrangement for I Can Do That which I felt was slightly underpowered – Mike’s wonderful show-off dance routine deserves as much musical oomph behind it as possible.
Does the production respect the original characterisations? YES! The show was originally conceived following a series of interviews with real Broadway dancers, telling their true experiences and revealing their true fears. For me, it’s vital that that truthfulness is not compromised, and there’s no danger of that here! Each performer has always brought their own personality to their role, and that tradition remains gloriously intact. I’m not going to mention everybody – as Cassie says, “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, in the 16 performances I’ve seen over the years, this was only the second time I’ve heard Paul’s monologue get a round of applause. Ainsley Hall Ricketts performs it with a degree of urgency and pace I’d not heard before, and relives Paul’s childhood experiences brilliantly vividly and profoundly. It’s obscene that an actor as young as him should be giving a stage masterclass but he does.
Jamie O’Leary portrays Mark as a much more edgy, anxiety-ridden youth than I’d seen before, which took me a little time to get used to but is an absolutely truthful reflection of the role. Redmand Rance’s Mike is again a little smoother and more sophisticated reading of the role than is usual – he’s normally more of a Soprano mobster kind of New Yorker, so that when he’s called Twinkletoes it really hurts – but his stage presence and dance solo are both superb. Beth Hinton-Lever’s Bebe is fresh, vibrant, excited and absolutely the right reading of the character who doesn’t want to hear that Broadway is dying because she’s only just got here. Joshua Lay and Katie Lee interact perfectly as Al and Kristine with an immaculately performed Sing – a song that’s very hard to get right. Tom Partridge is also perfect as the more mature Don, and tells the story of his association with Lolo Latores and her dynamic twin forty-fours with zest and fun. And André Fabien Francis is a delight as Richie; no, you just couldn’t imagine him a kindergarten teacher.
And, of course, there are the big hitters in the story. Adam Cooper brings a superb natural authority to the role of Zach, and balances beautifully the many aspects of the character – his work-driven impatience, his kindness, his genuine appreciation of the efforts of all the auditionees and his embarrassment at the fall-out with Cassie. But – Problem two: he’s on stage too much. Traditionally Zach spends most of the time in the audience at his desk and all you know of him is his disembodied voice barking instructions and challenges. This makes him more aloof from the dancers, which acutely exposes their vulnerability on the line. That said, it did allow for an unexpected additional frisson when Zach confronts Cassie with considerable aggression and Bobby feels like he has to step in to protect her; Zach’s threatening eyes intimidate Bobby into instant, but unwilling submission, and you feel like there’s an untapped mini drama going on behind the scenes that we’ll never speak of again. A brilliant moment.
Carly Mercedes Dyer’s Cassie is surprisingly assertive in her interactions with Zach; this Cassie knows the role should be hers and is less pleading with him than I’ve seen before. She is, of course, a brilliant stage performer and dancer, and her Music and the Mirror routine is electric with beauty and eloquence. Emily Barnett-Salter’s Sheila is as sassy and forthright as you would expect, which makes the moment Zach catches her out with her “anything to get out of the house” comment as telling as ever. As Diana, Lizzy-Rose Esin-Kelly gets to hold court over the theatre with two of the show’s most striking musical sequences and she does them both with terrific power and insight; I particularly liked her supreme emotional skills in Nothing. And Chloe Saunders gives us a wonderfully confident and in-your-face performance of Dance Ten Looks Three, a song with which I have embarrassed myself at several parties and karaokes over the decades.
There’s one thing I have missed. Howard Hudson’s lighting design. Give that man the Olivier Award this minute. Talk about dazzling. If you want to see how inventive lighting can transport a cast and audience to another place, just see this show.
It was Sir Harold Hobson, drama critic of the Sunday Times, who nailed A Chorus Line with his everlasting description quote: A rare, devastating, joyous, astonishing stunner. Forty-five years on, it still is. Perhaps more than ever. If ever there was an antidote to these pandemic-ridden, corruption-filled, selfish and depressingly cynical times, it’s this. A Chorus Line is back, and although this production is scheduled to run only until New Year’s Eve, it would be a crime for it not to have a life hereafter.
Production photos by Marc Brenner