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"WHAT I DID FOR LOVE": Diana (Amy Coenen) explains the love and dedication that keep these chorus members in the business through hardships and disappointment, in Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players' production of 'A Chorus Line,' at Hamilton Murray Theater for one more weekend, through February 26.
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Theatre Intime and P.U. Players Present "A Chorus Line," Michael Bennett's Moving Tribute to the Broadway Dancer

Donald Gilpin

Thirty years after its groundbreaking debut, which was followed by 6,137 performances in a fifteen-year run on Broadway, A Chorus Line continues to sparkle in its current revival at the Murray Theatre on the Princeton University campus. It stands as one of the greatest creations of American musical theatre, and, though no longer strikingly innovative and different, a timeless appeal emanates from its honesty, simplicity, and unrestrained celebration of the world of the Broadway show dancer.

Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players successfully bring to life these characters, their dreams and their fears, throughout an exciting evening of monologue, dialogue, music, and dance. The simple framework for A Chorus Line, originally conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett, is an audition for an upcoming Broadway show. As the director Zack appraises his dancers – cutting from 26 to 17 to just four males and four females, A Chorus Line probes the minds and hearts of these fragile souls.

A Chorus Line is about the harsh competition these "gypsies" must face every day of their lives as professional show dancers. It is about the brevity of dancers' careers and the transcendent dedication of these talented people who must care more about their work than their income. It is also about the personal lives of these vulnerable individuals, who, with passion, trepidation, and focused desire to achieve their dreams, merge into a dramatic ensemble, the chorus line, a living organism larger than the sum of its parts.

The driving force of this show-business musical is the competition to be cast in one of the eight chorus roles, but as the dancers one by one reveal their lives and personalities, the palette deepens and the tension mounts between the wants and needs of these individuals and the demands of the upcoming production.

Under the direction of Princeton University junior Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and sophomore Ashley Soloff, this Intime-PUP production displays a well coordinated, carefully rehearsed abundance of talent – in dance, drama, and music. Despite a few rough edges on opening night last Thursday, this Chorus Line successfully delivered an exhilarating evening of musical theatre.

Zack, played here with authority by Aaron Spolin, says to his auditioners, "I want the truth," and A Chorus Line presents that truth with powerful honesty and simplicity – without elaborate sets, just mirrors and an empty stage; without special effects; without action-packed plot; just the lives of these "gypsies" and the magic of dance. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and unforgettable music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban provide the final crucial ingredients in this dynamic, finely tuned blend.

Anticipation grabs the audience even before curtain time, as nervous dancers in rehearsal clothes fill the lobby awaiting the upcoming auditions. As the show begins the dancers flood down the aisles onto the stage, drawing the audience into the excitement of the world of show business. The opening company number I Hope I Get It communicates the anxiety and stimulation – "I really need this job" – through music, lyrics, and movement, as the dancers surge forward and back in lines, struggling to keep up with the combination of steps, and eventually moving into a downstage line holding their headshot photos and resumes (Am I my resume?) in front of their faces.

The pace varies, but the level of audience engagement never slackens throughout the next two hours of exploration into the lives of chorus dancers. Among the many highlights are I Can Do That, as Mike (Jonathan Yehuda), in a dazzling tap dance number, remembers watching his sister's dance class and deciding as a young boy that dance is the life for him; At the Ballet, where the acerbic Sheila ((Pam Testani), backed up by Bebe (Erica Duke) and Maggie (Leonore Carlson), evokes the fantasy and beauty of ballet, which provided her only escape from an otherwise unhappy childhood; Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love, in which the whole company, in an amusing series of montages, relives the horrors of early adolescence – from wet dreams, to growing tits, to drama class, realizing their sexual identities and true love; and a look at the cynical side of the casting process in Dance 10, Looks 3, where an engagingly expressive Val (Melissa Silver) describes in detail how "tits and ass will change your life. They sure changed mine."

As A Chorus Line approaches its climax, it slows down to focus on Cassie (Margaret Fuhrer), an aging dancer who has been around, broken out into solo parts but is now desperate to find work again as a chorus member. Her past romantic relationship with Zack reflects the life story of the original Broadway Cassie, Donna McKechnie, who was twice married to Mr. Bennett.

An accomplished dancer, singer and actress, Ms. Fuhrer handles this long, difficult number with impressive skill and conviction, alternating between conversation with Zack and personal reflections on her past and her love of dance. Her voice, in this number and in the following scene as she and Zack argue against the background of the chorus audition, does not always project over the orchestra, but by the second weekend of performances, orchestra and actor-singer should achieve a more effective balance.

Before the final cuts, leading up to the dazzling finale, Paul (Rob Walsh) presents a moving spoken monologue in which he shares the story of his search for identity, the traumas of his early career, his homosexuality, and his difficulties with his father; and Diana (Amy Coenen) delivers another show-stopper, leading the company in the well-known What I Did for Love, her passionate account of the dreams and devotion of the long-suffering show dancer ("I did what I had to do.")

Then, suddenly, the individuals, who have so convincingly won the audience's interest and sympathy, meld back into the living anonymous entity that is the chorus line to create a thrilling blend of style and movement, music, song, and dance, One, a masterpiece of musical theatre. A toning down of the traditional gold spangled costumes, space restrictions of the Murray Theatre stage and a few opening night costuming delays resulted in some diminution of the intensity of Mr. Bennett's original choreography, but the glittering top hats are intact, the dancers are highly energized and well rehearsed, and the overall effect is an electrifying culmination to this memorable experience.

Choreography by Amanda Ameer, Natasha Kalimada, Nadia Ben-Youssef, Diana Campbell and Kelly Sortino – adapted from Mr. Bennett's original staging – is consistently engaging, vibrant, and on target with music, character, and situation. The dancers are adept and well coordinated. Devon Wessman-Smerdon's lighting design effectively delineates between scenes of the present and scenes of thought or memory, and provides the appropriate tones and shifting moods for the proceedings, with set design – primarily the upstage mirrors – by Jon Miller and Ronee Penoi. Music Director Alex Fiorentino sets the requisite brisk pace in conducting the adept six-piece orchestra from off-stage left, though a bit more modulation of volume would be helpful in allowing the actor-singers to communicate clearly all their lines and lyrics.

The tension between the distinct, remarkable individuals who make up the company and the anonymous, cohesive ensemble unit of the chorus line remains as the show ends with the lights fading on the exuberant kick line. "I want people in the audience to go to other shows and think about what's really gone into making that chorus," Michael Bennett explained. "It fades with them kicking. That's it. That's the end of the show. There are no bows. I don't believe in bows, just the fade out. That's what a dancer's life is."

A Chorus Line will run one more weekend, Thursday through Saturday, February 24-26, at 8 p.m. in the Hamilton Murray Theatre on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or order online at www.princeton.edu/utickets. Visit www.theatreintime.org for further information.



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