Updated: Jun 2, 2022
From the Top: Five, Six, Seven, Eight!
For five thrilling, fleeting minutes, it’s show-biz unparalleled, one of those hallowed occasions in theatre when anxious expectation is transformed into sweet consummation.
What occurs shortly after 5:30PM at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, where a quintessential production of “A Chorus Line” opened Sunday night, is a sort of time bending that Einstein would have trouble explaining. Light, music and a mass of bodies in motion combined to allow you to exist both in 1975, when this musical was first staged, and in 2022—giving you a feeling so fresh that you have to stop to catch your breath.
The ecstasy of this “Chorus Line”—which in its first incarnation ran on Broadway from 1975 to 1990 and won pretty much every award on offer—arrives and departs prematurely, as that sweet rush of timelessness congeals into a time warp. You want it to last forever. Presented by Laguna Playhouse, who is in their 100th year of celebrating theatre, the show is set to perform through Sunday, June 12th.
Luis Villabon, who was mentored by original cast member Baayork Lee, and has since been enlisted as the go-to director/choreographer for domestic and international productions, including service as Associate Director for Antonio Banderas’ 2009 Spanish production, helms this magnificent production at Laguna Playhouse. His choreography and direction here burn up superlatives as if they were inflammable. In no way could it have been better done.
It starts on a bare stage and it pretty much stays there. At the back of the stage are revolving mirrors. At the front are movable footlights. The scene is a Broadway gypsy encampment—and the chorus, and how to get into it, is the line of battle. And the gypsies themselves—those dear, tough, soft‐bitten Broadway show hoofers, who are the salt and the earth of the small white way —are all neatly dissected as if they were a row of chickens.
There’s a merciless intensity about this scene, both exciting and scary. These kids are as tight as newly plucked violin strings. Their job‐hunger, their sex lives, their failures—all is under a coruscatingly cruel microscope. And though there are about two dozen of them, in just a few minutes you’ve become aware of every one as an individual, with either the potential to soar or to snap.
All but 17 of the hopefuls are eliminated in the first count‐out. Eight will be finally needed — four and four, four men and four women. The director has seen them dance, heard them sing, looked at their previous credits, studied their photographs, and now wants to know more about them—just as people. How will they fit in? Can they be made into a Broadway team? He lines them up across the stage—cold light, harsh voices, desperate needs.
Creating that awareness was the original goal of Michael Bennett, the great choreographer and director who shaped “A Chorus Line” from a series of taped interviews with seasoned dancers. Collaborating with his co-choreographer, Mr. Avian, the composer Marvin Hamlisch, the lyricist Edward Kleban and the librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, Mr. Bennett sought to paint in kinetic strokes a group portrait in which each subject came, if only briefly, into detailed focus, like the inhabitants of a densely-populated canvas by Velazquez or Rembrandt.
As Zach (Jonathan Van Dyke; “Mamma Mia”), the show’s director and ersatz Freudian analyst, and Larry (James Vinson; “Descendants”), his assistant, lead their auditioners through increasingly elaborate routines, the fascination is in the tension of the dancers trying (and often failing) to become the dance. It’s stream-of-consciousness dancing; we can hear the performers’ self-correcting, self-assuring thoughts as they go through their paces.
The music fills the air with vicarious anxiety and exhilaration, neatly capturing the melody-warping dissonance of Mr. Hamlisch’s score. You can still feel that same rudimental sense of urgency, central nervous system and throbbing heart that once propelled “A Chorus Line” 47 years ago, here musically directed by Ricky Pope (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). It feels quite telling that Mr. Hamlisch’s score sounds freshest at its most austere, in those sustained brassy vamps that suggest human beings morphing into automatons.
What gave Mr. Bennett’s exercise its special sentimental wallop was that his inspiration was people who generally registered onstage as a shiny, anonymous throng: human scenery with flexible limbs and rhythm. “A Chorus Line” shined a spotlight (literally and figuratively) on the components of this dancing machine, as the show’s director interrogated the finalists, unearthing the kinds of confessions usually reserved for psychiatrists’ couches. The paradox of this production is that, from that opening scene onward, the characters never register more fully than when they’re dancing in an ensemble. It’s when they step forward to tell their stories that they turn into types. The line, in other words, is stronger than its parts.
Katie Van Horn (“La Cage aux Folles”) is a natural for the central role of Cassie, the extraordinarily talented dancer (and former lover of Zach) who is trying to return to the chorus after failing as an actress. Cassie conveys a sharp, tough cookie who is perfectly capable of looking after herself, although a sense of desperation persists. But Cassie’s big solo, “The Music and the Mirror,” and especially her dance, is nothing but pure, distinctive elegance.
Johann Santos (“Mamma Mia”) is ingratiatingly boyish, younger-brotherish and strangely unsullied as Paul, who tells the agonizing story of his humiliating stint in a drag show in a monologue that brought shattered audiences to tears when he delivered it this past Sunday night.
As the sardonic Sheila Bryant, Natalie Kastner (“Sweet Charity”) captures and heightens the memorable armor of insolence, conveying an essential woundedness beneath from family-related trauma. Sheila is one of the trio of dancers that performs “At the Ballet” as a poignant tribute to the escape found in the beauty of ballet.
In retrospect, there are many unreal moments in musical theatre that we instantly throw praise hands up for. Following Sheila and Ellery Smith’s (“Jesus Christ, Superstar”) Bebe Benzenheimer recalling their moments of respite at the ballet, one legendary moment happens in “A Chorus Line” when Kristen Daniels (“Avenue Q”) as Miss Maggie Winslow of San Mateo, California steps out of the line and begins singing her section of "At the Ballet," one of the most challenging sections of the spectacular Marvin Hamlisch score. The trio synchronizes in perfect union as we “dance around the living room” amid sustained applause, chills doing pirouettes up our backs.
Daniella Castoria (“The Wolves”) is the iconic Diana Morales, a streetwise, yet eternal optimist from the Bronx. She sings “Nothing,” in a brava performance, which reveals her character to be funny, charming, and vulnerable, and also leads the company in the show’s power anthem, “What I Did for Love.” Mike’s (AJ Love; “Newsies”) agile dance gymnastics and energetic rendition of “I Can Do That” and Kristine (Presley Nicholson; “Newsies”) and Al (Bryce Bayer; “Footloose”) doubling up on “Sing” were also engaging highlights.
But one performer who unconditionally owns her role is Haley Ayers (“Show Boat”), who as Val sings “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” an ode to the career-enhancing benefits of plastic surgery. Strutting her chassis with a breasts-forward walk, and speaking like someone who decided as a child that her role models would be Bond girls, Ms. Ayers creates a deliciously credible study in self-invention.
Ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking, they tell all their stories one by one. Even the director has a story to tell. His girl, fearful of the saccharine smell of his success, walked out on him, and now, after failure and heartbreak in Los Angeles, she is back, in the audition, trying to win a way back onto the chorus line. All the while, Mr. Van Dyke’s Zach coaxes the dancers into psychological stripteases like Werner Erhard with a songbook. It’s a hard part to get right, but Jonathan Van Dyke does no wrong.
Ryan Mulvaney (“Footloose”) achieves a winning nervous narcissism as Bobby. Height challenged Connie is slightly self-deprecating, but adorable. Young Mark has hilarious memories of a gonorrhea scare. Richie’s high energy “Gimme the Ball” gets our blood pumping (“my trouble is wine, women, and song, and I can't get any of them”). But after one of them faces a possible career-ending injury, everyone confronts the question: what does it mean to them? In the end, eight are chosen. They all reunite on stage for the final number, identically costumed in luxury gold satin formal dancewear, no longer individuals, but moving as one singularly orchestrated sensation.
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS, A CHORUS LINE, ORIGINALLY DIRECTED & CHOREOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL BENNETT, BOOK BY JAMES KIRKWOOD AND NICHOLAS DANTE, MUSIC BY MARVIN HAMLISCH, LYRICS BY EDWARD KLEBAN, MUSICAL DIRECTION BY RICKY POPE, DIRECTED AND CHOREOGRAPHED BY LUIS VILLABON. EXECUTIVE PRODUCING DIRECTOR ELLEN RICHARD; SCENIC DESIGNER CHRIS STRANGFELD; LIGHTING DESIGNER CLIFFORD SPULOCK; SOUND DESIGNER IAN SCOT; PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR GAIL ANDERSON; PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER MICHAELINA MILLER.
WITH: JONATHAN VAN DYKE, JAMES VINSON, KATIE VAN HORN, NATALIE KASTNER, HALEY AYERS, DANIELLA CASTORIA, AVA CUSITOR, PRESLEY NICHOLSON, KRISTEN DANIELS, ELLERY SMITH, ERIKA HARPER, AJ LOVE, WILLIAM NELSON, JOHANN SANTOS, DORIAN QUINN, BENJI GODLEY-FISHER, PATRICK MURRAY, RYAN MULVANEY, BRYCE BAYER; ENSEMBLE: SAMANTHA BORTHWICK, LUCY SWINSON, KYLE URBANIAK, IZZY VALDEZ AYRES-KAPLAN.
Laguna Playhouse continues performances through Sunday, June 12th, Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2:00PM and 7:30PM, Sundays at 1:00PM. Added performance on June 9th at 2:00PM. No performance on June 10th at 7:30PM, June 11th at 2:00PM and June 12th at 5:30PM. Tickets range $55-95 and are on sale now at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (959) 497-ARTS Mondays through Saturdays
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jason Niedle