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Uniquely human

The social underpinnings of A Chorus Line
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 3, 2009

chorus main
EACH AN INDIVIDUAL The cast of A Chorus Line.

When A Chorus Line won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976, America was experiencing what was then the worst economic downturn since the Depression, vibrant women's-lib and gay-rights movements, and such trends in popular psychology as the encounter group. It's worth keeping all that in mind as you get to know the play's 17 dancers seeking individual fulfillment, self-acceptance, and — at the very least — a job. It makes for interesting context to the longest-running Broadway show in history: This classic look into the lives of aspiring dancers is also an attempt to elevate individuals, some marginalized, from an anonymous many to a diverse community. Directed by Luis Villabon with Michael Bennett's original choreography, this humanist musical runs through June 13 at the Ogunquit Playhouse, with a stellar cast of performers and a sharp seven-piece band.

Running the audition is director Zach (the deep-voiced Lorenzo Lamas, whom you may remember from Falcon Crest or The Bold and the Beautiful), who alternately leads the would-be dancers through grueling routines and ascends to the booth for a confrontational interview portion of the competition. Unseen up there, he becomes a sort of voice of God, or at least a benevolent talk therapist, as he prods the dancers to talk about themselves — their oppressed mothers, boob jobs, and early homosexual leanings; finding homes at the ballet or the strip club or the drag show; the individual and collective struggles behind the urge to dance.

It's not always easy to talk about such things, so the audition's rigors are thus both physical and psychological, and this dynamic, technically expert cast conveys that spirit beautifully. They soar in executing choreography that's demanding, wide-ranging in style, and nearly constant throughout two hours of simultaneous singing with no intermission (omitted, perhaps, to give us in the audience a mere hint of the endurance required). It's a pleasure just to watch their bodies in motion. They also do a convincing job of occasionally screwing up the combinations as they learn them (not always an easy thing for a pro), and particularly endearing is how each individual's dancing expresses a distinct personality — even though they're ultimately paid to dance just like everybody else in the line.

A Chorus Line is devoted to throwing spotlights on those distinct personalities behind the identical smiles and uniform extension, and the dancers in this production are clearly, gratifyingly, also actors. Portrayals are consistently both funny and poignant; some of the highlights: Christine LaDuca's feisty Nuyorican Diana tells with sass and feeling of how she got into New York's High School for the Performing Arts, but couldn't stand its touchy-feely '70s pedagogy (e.g., channeling a bowl of ice cream). Paul (the haunted Felipe Quillin) changed his name after spending his youth among the characters of pre-Guiliani 42nd Street and traveling drag shows. Nadine Isenegger brings a ferocious dignity to Cassie, once on her way to making it as a "real" performer, and now determined to get a job as one of the identical dancers in the chorus line.

Further helping bring us to the dancers' side of the proscenium are the simple but elegant lighting (by Richard Latta) and set, which provide both expressionist and impressionist renderings of the dancers' experience. Purple spots come up on dancers as they wait to be called on, and we enter their anxious thoughts about what they'll say. Behind them, a row of rotating triangular columns ("periaktoi" is their technical term) alternates the background, usually between black and — most stimulatingly — a row of studio mirrors. The mirrors amplify the dancers' exertions, and also give us the empathetic and seductive sensation of footlights shining in our own eyes.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at 

A CHORUS LINE | conception and original choreography and direction by Michael Bennett | Directed and choreographed by Luis Villabon | Musical direction by Don Hite | Presented by the Ogunquit Playhouse, in Ogunquit | through June 13 | 207.646.5511

Related: Review: Friday the 13th (2009), Review: In a Dream, Review: The Bad Plus's For All I Care, More more >
  Topics: Theater , A CHORUS LINE, Culture and Lifestyle, Dance,  More more >
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