Review: ‘A Chorus Line’ at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival fabulously struts its stuff
When “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway in 1975, it became the hottest ticket in the New York theater district. Now some 47 years later, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production (running through July 10 on the Main Stage at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University) proves it’s still a singular sensation.
Originally slated for PSF’s 2020 season, the musical features a host of Broadway and off-Broadway actors in its 27-member cast. The production is directed and choreographed by Luis Villabon, whose intimate connection with the show includes having played the role of Paul in 13 national and international productions.
The show impresses from the opening curtain, with a huge array of floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the rear of the stage evoking a dance studio. But more than that, they not only reflect the actors but also the audience — a striking visual effect that in itself serves as a metaphor for the world of the theater. When the mirrors disappear, the visual effect is minimalistic, with distinctly theatrical lighting evoking the bare stage of a Broadway theater.
On this stage, 17 dancers are auditioning for spots on a chorus line as Zach, the director-choreographer (played by James Harkness), pulls them one by one from the line to learn more about them. Harkness is wonderfully intimidating in the role, especially when we hear his disembodied booming voice when offstage.
What we hear from Zach’s ruthless questioning are various tales of woe and unhappy childhoods running the gamut from discovering one’s homosexuality to overcoming a less-than-attractive figure with breast enhancement. That last bit is the basis for the hysterical number “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” where Kathryn Brunner as Val is marvelously animated as she explains it’s not just about talent — boobs and butts count just as much. The uber-sexy and sassy Sheila, delightfully played by Madison Finney, has no need to worry about such deficiencies.
Eddie Martin Morales as Paul is touchingly self-effacing and dignified in his tale of discovering his homosexuality, in contrast to the over-enthusiastic Richie, wonderfully played by Shaun-Avery Williams, who bounded about the stage with muscular grace. “A Chorus Line” is the ultimate ensemble musical, and Villabon’s directing skill melds all these disparate stories together flawlessly.
The main theme of the show — the desperate need to perform — is something the entire theater community can relate to during the pandemic shutdowns, and nowhere is the idea better delivered than by the passionate performance of Cassie, played by Sissy Bell. Her desperation to get back into dancing after a self-induced mental block was downright palpable.
Bell gets one of the longest spots in the musical, with gorgeous vocals and dancing with a perfect mix of confidence and self-doubt in “The Music and the Mirror” — a marathon performance indeed. The orchestra, conducted by music director Andy Peterson, was in especially top form here, as it was throughout the show.
Some reviewers of “A Chorus Line” have called the extended exchange between Zach and Cassie (former lovers) over her joining the dancers a weak point too much like a soap opera. I did not find this the case in the PSF production; in fact, it was quite compelling to watch the two argue while the dancers behind them went through their moves with mask-like smiles on their faces.
At the very core of “A Chorus Line” is the dancing, and Villabon faithfully captures Michael Bennett’s sharp moves and snappy kick-turns splendidly. These could be angular, jazzy, balletic, or even bumbling, depending on a character’s story and personality. The kaleidoscopic number “Hello Twelve,” about memories of traumatic childhoods, was a real tour de force.
The iconic “One” was a multi-sensual feast of high kicks and high hats, with the dancers wearing identical uniforms so that everyone blended into one gigantic, glittering, singularly sensational golden blur.