If you are in theater and you hear "5, 6, 7, 8", more times than not, you feel the urge to go into the opening dance sequence of A Chorus Line. Even if you are not a dancer, for just a moment you long to be one. A Chorus Line was the first Broadway show I ever saw in the summer of 1984. I remember the feeling I had as the gypsies on stage shared their stories with the audience; their deep longing to be a part of the Broadway community; the truth that each dancer is more than simply a line of un-named faces.
Paper Mill Playhouse has opened their season with the show and once again, I was that teenage boy reliving those same feelings, only this time through the eyes of a 43 year old man. Director/choreographer Mitzi Hamilton has restaged the original direction and choreography brilliantly on the stage in Milburn, New Jersey. And she should know. She was part of the original audio sessions (inspiring the role of Val) that became the workshop and eventually the Pulitzer Prize winning, and nine Tony Award-winning) Best Musical. This production feels as fresh as it did when it opened on Broadway in 1975. It even utilizes scenic and costume designs from the Broadway production.
I can’t imagine that there are people that do not know of this inventive concept musical by Michael Bennett, which took recorded sessions he had with dancers and created a book that shares their hopes and dreams--all intertwined within an audition setting, while, a director is looking for eight men and women to fill spots in the ensemble of a new Broadway show. The late Marvin Hamlisch provided a score that soared and would bring tissues out of theater-goers pockets as the cast sang of “What I Did for Love”.
Audiences tend to want to see A Chorus Line done a certain way. They go in “knowing” it and you can feel the collective “ahhhh” when the iconic line is formed with each dancer going into their pose. Restaging the original choreography takes the audience back to the first time they may have seen it, and our memory plays such a huge part in this show that is set in the 1970’s. At the same time, I’m thrilled when I see actors taking chances to make the characters more of their own while staying true to the original. When that gamble works; it is magic. We see plenty of examples in this production with this cast of fine triple-threat performers.
The show is an ensemble piece and yet written so perfectly to allow each character to have their moment to shine. And shine they do on the stage of the Paper Mill Playhouse - starting with that now famous song mentioned above. At the performance I attended, understudy Jessica Vaccaro played the part of Diana and what a performance she gave. All the spunk and energy needed for the feisty Morales, with a voice that boomed to the back of the house. Speaking of voices, I’ve seen ACL so many times and tend to judge it based on Maggie’s ability to bring chills with her voice. Karley Willocks does not disappoint in this area: so sweet and pure - a delight. Kevin Curtis was a firecracker of a Richie with energy that went on for days. Kristine is usually a role I only pay attention to during “Sing”, but not when Amanda Rose is playing the part. She commanded my attention through much of the production – and I gladly gave it.
I watched the documentary of the casting of the last revival on Broadway and just knew Rachelle Rak would have played the character of Sheila. I was wrong that time, but audiences finally get to see this fine actress in a role she was born to play. Both the attitude and vulnerability were all perfectly packaged in her portrayal of this woman. And I knew it would be. I was equally mesmerized by her each time she stepped on the stage when I saw her in Catch Me if You Can on Broadway. Martin Harvey is a strong Zach and his scenes with Cassie are wonderfully acted by both he and Jessica Lee Goldyn. I adored Ms. Goldyn when I saw her in the Broadway revival as Val, but the Paper Mill Playhouse pit overpowers her when she sings and there are moments when the star that is Cassie gets lost in the crowd. Other standouts are Ashley Arcement as Val, all three women of “At the Ballet,” and J. Manuel Santos delivering Paul’s emotional monologue.