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REVIEW: "A Chorus Line" - Sierra Repertory Theatre, Sonora

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

“…If you can't get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”-George Bernard Shaw

Sierra Repertory Theatre, located in the beautiful foothills of California’s Gold Country, proudly presents one of the most stunning concept musicals of the century - “A Chorus Line,” playing February 10th through March 24th, in celebration of their 40th anniversary season. And if there is one, singular sensation to be had at Sierra Rep’s revival of “A Chorus Line,” it may be that the show boasts wall-to-wall talent, a cast that works its collective derrière off on the stage.

The show features music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, and a book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, premiering Off Broadway in 1975, where it ran for 101 performances before closing on July 13, 1975. It then made its Broadway debut two weeks later at the Shubert Theatre, where it ran for 6,137 performances before closing in April, 1990. "A Chorus Line" won a total of nine 1976 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical (Michael Bennett), and Best Choreography, and also won seven Drama Desk Awards — including Outstanding Musical/Book and Outstanding Music and Lyrics — and the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1984, the show received a special Tony Award as Broadway’s longest-running musical.

Then, the following year, 1985, a motion-picture version of "A Chorus Line" was released, directed by Richard Attenborough (“Gandhi,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” "Jurassic Park") and starred Michael Douglas. The film was subsequently nominated for three 1986 Academy Awards. Quite a resume for a show that had not one central character! In short, it was a production that literally reshaped the tradition of the great American musical.

With the exception of some original choreography restaged by Russell Garrett, who not only directs but plays the part of Zach, the formidable workaholic director in the show, this two-hour, 10-minute intermission-less production remains relatively unchanged from what you got 44 years ago. At that time, this story of seventeen dancers giving it all they've got during an all-day casting call for a Broadway show truly broke ground. It created a sort of onstage psychological trauma center and support group for a then-unheralded breed of dedicated dancer: the anonymous chorus member who fills in on those big show numbers, gets no acclaim, takes an early bow, and disappears into the shadows of The Great White Way, always dreaming of that big break.

Crafted from interviews with real-life dancers, there was never a name for the show, there were no sets, except for a few mirrors that flashed on and off during selected numbers. And the costumes were limited to dance leotards or warm-up gear. It must have seemed like Broadway was reinventing the wheel. But audiences were riveted. Plus, in a very unique aspect to other Broadway musicals, there was no defined protagonist. The show centers around all seventeen dancers who get fairly equal character development and stage time.

Mr. Garrett's cast of locals and imported artistry looks and sounds like they've been doing this on Broadway stages all their careers. But because the show takes place at an audition, the characters are really not supposed to be equally good at the steps they are asked to master in an instant, a feat that this company executes terrifically, convincing us that these performers are just now learning to dance as an ensemble together. Of course, when their characters start spilling their emotional baggage, prompting the show's big musical numbers, all the dancers suddenly show just how precise, polished, and brilliant they really are.

They do their best to impress the mostly unseen director, Zach (who can be curt and harsh, but is revealed later to be a caring and empathetic man who truly grows to care about these dancers), and his very agile assistant choreographer, Larry (Greg Parker), who really puts the dancers through their paces in stark precision. Each dancer is desperate for work in (“I Hope I Get It”), a ten minute sequence, one of the most exciting openings in all musical theatre, as each actor’s individual strength surfaces in the opening scene, designed to pop the audience’s eyes from the get-go.

But after the first round of eliminations, the group is down to seventeen. Zach tells them he is looking for a strong chorus of four boys and four girls, but then makes a surprising request: he asks the dancers to tell their names, ages, and a little about themselves. With reluctance, the backstory of each of the dancers is revealed - where they come from and why they dance.

Ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking, they tell their stories one by one, with several having a shocking effect, even in today’s permissive world. Aside from the fact that they've chosen a job, which, by its very nature means they have all experienced unemployment, poverty, rejection and possible injury, many of the dancers have had traumatic early childhood events, including absent, estranged or disapproving parents, homophobia, sexual molestation, the death of family members, and bullying.

The reality of their common lives has a universality to it, which may be why the show is still so meaningful today. After one of them faces a possible career-ending injury, with a 50-50 chance of ever being able to dance again, everyone confronts the poignant, soul-stirring questions: What does all this mean to them? What would you do if you couldn’t dance anymore? But no matter what any of their backgrounds or situations are, they all still have one thing in common: a fire deep within – a fervor...a passion for dance.

The show's romantic subplot tells an even more detailed story about Zack and his ex, Cassie (Adrianne Hampton), the former lead dancer who arrived late and once had a tempestuous romantic relationship with Zach, before leaving him for bigger and better starring roles. Now, her situation has changed. She hasn't worked in over a year, and is desperate to be just part of the show. Her electrifying vocal performance in the iconic “The Music and the Mirror” is truly a star turn as she struggles against Zach's reluctance to see her as just another chorus girl. Cassie’s aching vulnerability of a successful woman surrendering to her fate is captured and then freed as she dances that extended scene with unrivaled grace and flare.

That complex relationship comes into play in the first rendition of "One," where Zach and Cassie finally confront each other and their romantic past. We gather that Zach’s complete immersion in his work led to a rift between him and Cassie, contributing to her inability to concentrate and blend on the line during rehearsals. Originally written as a dialogue scene, Mr. Bennett early-on combined it with a musical number, giving it extra feeling and symbolic significance as the "schmoozes" are countered by the ghostlike images of the chorus dancers.

As far as the musical numbers, compliments to Director Russell Garrett and Musical Director Brian Allan Hobbs, along with Sean Paxton, Musical Accompaniment, for superior musical suavity in the cast. Many of the songs were montage pieces, performed as one dancer told his story in pantomime while the rest sang and sometimes danced their inner thoughts. But although the storyline centers mainly on a dance audition, several standout voices were apparent early on.

The “big” solos were, without question, show-stopping. One such event was a staggered trio with featured parts on all three singers — Timmy Hays (Sheila), Marissa Mayer (as the plucky Bebe) and Kristen Daniels (Maggie) recounting how, “At the Ballet,” they could forget their rotten home life. Ms. Hays’ and Ms. Mayer’s crystal-clear, flawless voices were filled with emotion and thrilled in one of the most well-known numbers in the show. And when Ms. Daniels as the sweet Maggie joined the "At the Ballet" troika, ringing that high E natural for the soaring climax, with the audience clearly buzzing in audible exhilaration, the beautiful strength of her voice was impossible to ignore.

The scatter-brained Kristine, hilarious and overanxious, and her husband Al (Zoe Swenson Graham and Ethan Daniel Corbett) in a display of whimsical bonding, conveys the predicament of a performer who dances better than she sings in the perfectly timed fun number, “Sing.” Al’s full range was also notable, particularly as a cute contrast to Kristine, his tone-deaf wife. Soon after, Molly Dobbs enlightens with plenty of A-cup angst in Val’s barrel of laughs’ number, "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” an attempt to improve your job prospects through plastic surgery. “ Pretty, busty dancers get work” says the brazen Val… “flat and sassy dancers don't.”

The nimble Michael Hardenberg, who raises the energy level early in the show with a terrific performance of Mike’s “I Can Do That” was amazing in dance technique; and in “Gimme the Ball,” the strong dancing, very cool and laid-back Richie (Bryce Valle) vigorously recounts how he turned from a basketball scholarship and a career as a teacher to follow his dreams of becoming a dancer.

Other standouts include Sydni Abenido as Diana Morales, a streetwise Latina who is a bit tough, but an eternal optimist. Ms. Abenido projects a clear sense of defiance and determination in “Nothing,” about the abusive acting teacher who underestimated her skills, revealing a charming vulnerability, and then really shines in her gentle featured rendition in the eleven-o’clock number,“What I Did For Love.” Ms. Hays, in a second mention, as the delightfully droll, sexy Sheila, lets her hair down and balances the character’s world-weary humor with her hard-won dignity. Her biting line delivery and knowing glances let us know exactly what she's been through in her life.

And Michael Miguel as Paul will break your heart from the minute he sings "Oh, God, I Need This Show" in the opening number to the show’s best dramatic moment: his spoken recollection of when he realizes he is gay, and an exceptional wrenching delivery about his covert background as a cross-dressing dancer and his strained family relations, making an intimate moment in the show both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Don (Patrick J. Clarke), was the ladies man from Kansas City, who is married, and into cars, money and women; Lucas Michael Chandler was the sassy, Jewish Gregory, from the East Side; Butch was Charles Bostick, Vicki was Kelli Brock, Tricia was Quinn Farley, Roy was Rajah Foerstner, and Frank was Josh Ranck, all dance extraordinaires.

We find out about the "ambiguously gay" Bobby (Zachary Isen), flamboyant, funny, and very sharp tongued, covering everything over with a joke; Bobby had a very hard childhood, but loves the spotlight and does a very humorous stand-up routine. "...but then I realized to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant." Connie Wong is played by the versatile Tina Nguyen (“Legally Blonde,” “Annie Get Your Gun”). She’s an experienced dancer, but quite petite, and a bit of a mother hen. Very sensitive about her age, Connie introduces herself as being born on the lower east side of Chinatown on "December 5, 4642, the Year of the Chicken," which would make her 31 years old.

The sex-obsessed all-American kid, Mark (Dalton Bertolone), who was quite naïve and very charming, had little experience on stage but was a five-star dancer; Judy was played by Emily Gatesman, who played the part expertly as the tall, funny nervous type — a little awkward except when dancing.

But the big company numbers unite the dancers together as one cohesive unit: "And," featuring Bobby, Richie, Val and Judy, lets the audience in on everyone’s inner misgivings about this strange audition process. "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen," is an upbeat coming of age montage sequence number by the whole company, who share memories of their traumatic early teen years, and is the first of several places in the show where homosexuality is dealt with in a matter of fact style.

And just as suddenly as it began, the scene transitions into the wonderfully brilliant finale reprise, “One,” a masterpiece of style and irony, and truly a spectacular climax. It begins with an individual bow for each of the nineteen characters, their hodgepodge rehearsal clothes replaced by identical spangled gold costumes. As each dancer joins the group, it is suddenly difficult to distinguish one from the other, each candidate now only an anonymous member of an ensemble.

Adding significantly to the visual picture is the excellent work of Lighting Designer Christopher Van Tuyl , assisted by Spotlight Operators Dale Pope, Bill Herbert, Morgan Madrid, Kyle Moses and Jordan Proch. DC Theatricks provided the “finale” costuming, with Anna Owen serving as Costume Coordinator. Stage Manager was expertly administered by Jay David and assisted by Dale Pope; Scenic Designer was Brian Dudkiewicz, and Jill Slyter Assistant Directed as well as Co-Choreographed with Russell Garrett. The Dance Captain was Marissa Mayer (Bebe). Sound Design was by Tatiana Covington-Parra.

"A Chorus Line" is one of the most well-known and beloved musicals of all time – one that requires a large, multi-talented triple-threat cast who can act, sing, and dance like there’s no tomorrow. Sierra Repertory Theatre’s production of this classic musical is exemplary, a feast for the eyes and the ears, sending butterflies and goosebumps throughout the audience from a cast that really delivers!

This show has the highest recommendation! Now playing through March 24th at East Sonora Theatre on Mono Way in Sonora, Wednesdays through Sundays at 2pm and 7pm certain days, there is exactly twelve more performances remaining in this run. Tickets may be purchased online at Don’t miss this thrilling show!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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