"Don't perform," cries Zach, the director-choreographer, as he relentlessly grills the desperate, adorable auditionees in A Chorus Line, the definitive musical on the uphill struggles of Broadway performers. The trouble with this new revival of the classic tuner is that everyone is performing their heart out — and it shows.
What made the show a watershed on a par with Show Boat, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story was that it shattered the rules of all previous musical theatre. There was no conventional plot or leading characters. Seventeen dancers revealed their deepest aspirations, hurts, and joys as they tried out for an unnamed Broadway show. Audiences were seeing a side of showbiz that had never been brought to light before. The specter of extremely talented show gypsies competing for a tiny number of jobs touched a nerve, and A Chorus Line has been with us ever since, either on Broadway (where it closed in 1990 after a nearly 15-year run), on tour, or at regional and community theatres. The genius of the concept was its treatment of the anonymous kids in the chorus as individuals — real and sweating, not just dancing bodies.
This new Chorus Line has an air of historical preservation rather than intimate immediacy: It's an exact replica of the original. Michael Bennett's inventive staging is replicated by Bob Avian (co-choreographer on the first production), and Bennett and Avian's dazzling choreography is re-created by Baayork Lee, a member of the first, legendary cast. Even costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge's leotards, sweaters, and leg warmers, Robin Wagner's magic-mirror set, and Tharon Musser's versatile lighting (adapted by Natasha Katz) are essentially the same as they were in 1975.
As a result, most of the new cast push too hard to create their own versions of these beloved icons. They are all terrific dancers, but they don't follow Zach's advice, and we can see them perform rather than behave. However, there are moments of spontaneity in this rigorously rehearsed wax museum: Charlotte d'Amboise gives Cassie's "The Music and the Mirror" a palpable desperation, as if she were literally dancing for her life. Jessica Lee Goldyn's Val is sassy and sexy. Mara Davi has a heartbreaking moment as she recalls fantasies of dancing with her distant father. Chryssie Whitehead is goofily endearing as Kristine, the girl who can't sing, and Tony Yazbeck is equally enchanting as her supportive husband.
Despite the rigid respectfulness of Avian's production, this Chorus Line still essentially works. It entertains but does not move us. It will probably have a long run (though not as long as the original) and keep several Back Stage readers employed. It would have been more exciting had those involved taken a chance and tried a few new steps.
Presented by Vienna Waits Productions at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., NYC. Opened Oct. 5 for an open run. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Jay Binder Casting.