When “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway in 1975, it became the hottest ticket in New York’s theater district. Now, some 47 years later, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production (through July 9 on the main stage of DeSales University’s Labuda Center for the Performing Arts) 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 to 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 back of the stage reminiscent of a dance studio. But more than that, they reflect not only the actors but also the audience – a striking visual effect that in itself serves as a metaphor for the world of theatre. When the mirrors disappear, the visual effect is minimalist, with distinctly theatrical lighting evoking the bare stage of a Broadway theater.
On this stage, 17 dancers audition for spots on a chorus line as director-choreographer Zach (played by James Harkness) pulls them one by one from the line to find out more about them. Harkness is wonderfully intimidating in the role, especially when you hear his booming disembodied voice offstage.
What we hear from Zach’s ruthless interrogation are various tales of misfortune and unhappy childhoods ranging from discovering he was gay to mastering an unattractive figure through breast enhancement. This last track is the basis of the hysterical number “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” where Kathryn Brunner as Val is wonderfully animated as she explains that it’s not just about talent – tits and butt matter just as much. The ultra-sexy and sassy Sheila, delightfully played by Madison Finney, doesn’t have to worry about such deficiencies.
Eddie Martin Morales as Paul is touchingly dignified in his tale of discovering his homosexuality, unlike the over-enthusiastic Richie, wonderfully played by Shaun-Avery Williams, who leaps onto the stage with muscular grace. “A Chorus Line” is the ultimate ensemble musical, and Villabon’s directorial talent merges all of these disparate stories seamlessly.
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 Cassie’s impassioned performance, played by Sissy Bell. Her desperation to get back to dancing after a self-induced mental block was downright palpable.
Bell gets one of the longest spots in the musical, with a gorgeous voice and dancing with the perfect blend of confidence and self-doubt in ‘The Music and the Mirror’ – a marathon performance indeed. The orchestra, led by music director Andy Peterson, was in particularly strong form here, as throughout the show.
Some critics of “A Chorus Line” called the prolonged 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 case in the PSF production; in fact, it was quite compelling to watch the two argue as the dancers behind them performed their moves with mask-like smiles on their faces.
At the very heart of “A Chorus Line” is dancing, and Villabon faithfully captures Michael Bennett’s snappy moves and snappy kicks. These can be angular, jazzy, balletic, or even goofy, depending on a character’s story and personality. The kaleidoscopic number “Hello Twelve”, about traumatic childhood memories, 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 a gigantic shimmering golden blur that was singularly sensational.
When: Until July 10
Where: Main stage at Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley
Tickets and info: pashakespeare.org or 610.282.WILL