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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

That's the famous and ubiquitous vamp from A Chorus Line, the 1975 musical that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and run for 15 years on Broadway. In 2006, A Chorus Line returned to Broadway in a new revival, which coincided with the rising popularity of dance reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

The timing of this may have been coincidence, but watching A Chorus Line today makes it clear how deeply these shows—and indeed the entire reality genre—are indebted to Michael Bennett's creation.

newsweek-chorus_line.jpgBennett was a veteran performer and choreographer of big old-fashioned Broadway shows. With A Chorus Line he attempted to pull back the curtain and show the human side of glamorous, show business performers. Its hard in our tabloid obsessed times to appreciate how novel A Chorus Line was when appeared off-Broadway back in 1975. The dramatic techniques it used—the audition medleys, the first-person interviews, all building the suspense of who's going to win the part—are now staples of any reality show from American Idol to The Apprentice.

Chorus_Line-Mario_Lopez.jpgThe intersection of celeb-reality television and A Chorus Line reached its nadir this year when the Broadway revival added Mario Lopez, a D-List actor who gained notoriety on Dancing With the Stars, to its cast, in the role of Zach. Those who remember him as the hunky, jock Slater on Saved by the Bell, know that Lopez's acting skills are limited and this is only more apparent on stage. He has little confidence or presence in either his dramatic scenes or dancing bits—and most of all, his voice (so important to the part of Zach, the director who is always present at the audition but rarely seen) is thin and devoid of authority. His casting doesn't ruin the show but since his stage chops are so lacking, his presence does undermine the notion that A Chorus Line is a celebration of theater professionals.

Luckily, the touring production of this Broadway revival (currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre) is free of any Hollywood Squares-style celebrity casting. The actor playing Zach, Michael Gruber, is a veteran of countless stage productions. I can't remember what he looks like, but I do remember the ease with which he did the dance numbers and sound of his voice, both of which signified that he was in control of the audition.

The rest of the touring cast performs their parts in similar transparent fashion. You won't leave the theater remembering their names, but you will remember their characters. The actresses playing Diana and Val were particularly strong, but it was Emily Fletcher as the aging warhorse, Sheila, who stopped the show with the way she tells Zach her age. "Thirty," she says crisply, as if it were a concept rather than a hard number.

chorus_line.jpgA Chorus Line is now a few years past 30, but its still kicking, still dazzling, and still relevant. It's Sheila who sobers up the rest of the dancers when she says, "Everyone in this country wants to be a star." As show business intrudes further and further into everyday American life, A Chorus Line does more than simply hold a mirror up to the dancer's life, it starts to feel like a reflection of our national psyche.

A Chorus Line continues on Broadway through August 17, the touring production runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 6 and at theaters in San Francisco, San Diego and Costa Mesa through August 31.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image: Paul Kolnik

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