Olney’s ‘Chorus Line’: ’70s Musical As Fresh As Today

The “A Chorus Line” production now at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland—already extended through Sept. 8—isn’t perfect by any means, nor would you expect it to be, nor, in the end, should it be.

The little glitches—miking, mostly—here and there, a voice off track here, a note not quite reached—all the things that probably won’t repeat themselves next time or further down the line, end up being an almost natural (and poignant) part of this production of a classic show about a group of dance gypsies, vying for a spot on the chorus line of a musical eventually bound for Broadway.

That was the basic material for genius producer-director Michael Bennett’s 1975 record-breaking, Tony-award winning and legendary music which remains more than 35 years later a one-of-a-kind achievement, a gift, really to the lore and legend of Broadway and to audiences, both then, and now. We saw a matinee production which was worth the trip to Olney, among an audience of older folks, dotted with more than a few walkers and wheelchairs, full of people who would be in fact be the current age of most of the performers in the original show.

“A Chorus Line,” then and now, is a stretch in the sense that it runs a little over two hours with no intermission. It’s worth the stretch and the effort, because of Stephen Nachamie’s relentlessly faithful and push-ahead direction, because of the cast, because of the ghost of Bennett, Marvin Hamlich’s music and a tart and touching book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

It’s worth it because, in a spotlight here, a moment there, in a spark when the cast in full glitter and voice take over stage, minds and heart is a kind of audience blessing.

The musical-play may seem and feel dated—there are references for instance to the Ed Sullivan Show and the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, and the wannabe dancers give their ages, which puts them in the specific yesterday and yesteryear time. But up close on a mid-week afternoon, they are as fresh as now as are the songs. It’s a fresh and real energy being brought to the show here far from an audition stage, far from show biz and Broadway and bright lights and big city.

Twenty-two melting pot aspirants arrive to vie to be in the chorus line under the sharp, authoritarian and prying voice of a director named Zach (played with straightforward honesty by Carl Randolph), and they know that the end result will be a four-and-four, that only eight of them can make the show. What was revolutionary about the show—it was based on taped interviews with actual dancers—is that it focused on this almost side-show aspect of theatrical show business with pungent language, honest and authentic stories and affecting outcomes, and blessed the characters with moments to strut their stuff in the spotlight and come together in spectacular fashion.

It’s a piece of Americana up there: gay dancers still suffering then, but not so much now, tall and short dancers, busty dancers—the subject comes up in the daffy, the tarty “Dance Ten: Looks: Three“ — lovelorn girls, unhappy boys, but all of them dedicated up to their eyeball to what they do.

Some of the songs have acquired legend status—“What I Did for Love” for instance, and the invitation to dance, “One”, done not once but twice, the last as a kind a kind of wonderful tribute—the hats, the gloss, the gold the glitter, the unison—to the boys and girls of the chorus line.

Even a chorus line isn’t equal, not even in a show about the chorus line—in this cast there are great dancers, great singers and great groups; some are better singers than dancers and vice versa. But Michelle Arvena, petite, dark-haired, restless and eager, who had to take over the lead role of Cassie close to the show’s opening, is the complete package. In her “The Music and the Mirror” number, she demonstrates a range, tactile, go-anywhere voice that matches her dancing moves, a complete set of gifts with the extra add-on of fine acting.

This is a one-of-a-kind show because it has room in the middle of proceedings to hear the heart-breaking, moving story of Paul as a monologue, a tale of struggling and identity that Bryan Knowlton tells haltingly, softly, in a quiet voice that packs tremendous power.

Other standouts include a wonderful tap number: “The Tap Combination,” Kyle Schliefer’s sprite sing and dance “I Can do That” and Colleen Hayes’s dead-on rendition of Sheila, a curvy, knowing blonde with attitude, it’s a smart, funny and touching performance.

This is a heart-felt, enthusiastically staged production, and a reminder of just how gifted the late Bennett was, and a deserved moment of glory for all the boys and girls of the chorus line, which—like newspapers—are rapidly disappearing.

Later, nevertheless, the numbers remain in your head: Five-six-seven eight . . . the call to act for the dancers on the line.

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