'A Chorus Line' still relevant after almost four decades

TV's "Smash" might be the backstage musical of the moment, but the granddaddy of all Broadway behind-the-scenes dramas is "A Chorus Line."

The latest tour of this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is by American Theatre International, and it started a two-night stay at the Garde Arts Center on Tuesday.

"A Chorus Line" definitely feels of its time; it opened on Broadway in 1975. The songs - by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban - seem very much of that era, as does the choreography from Michael Bennett.

And yet what the show has to say still resonates. The stories of dancers told in "A Chorus Line" feel real because, in a lot of cases, they are. Director/choreographer Bennett brought together two dozen chorus dancers and let them just talk about their lives and their careers. What book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante pulled from those reflections are a series of full-blooded tales of dreams held and dreams dashed, of cocky confidence and raging self-doubt.

The show's framework is simple: 18 dancers are auditioning for a chorus line that requires only eight performers.

On a bare Broadway stage, they each step up, tell their story, sing and dance, and await the verdict of the director. It all feels like a template for shows like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

To some extent, the characters are types, but they are filled out with enough detail to give them dimension.

Cassie, played by Caley Crawford, is the former luminary fighting for renewed relevance. Her past relationship with the director, Zach (Jeremiah Ginn), throws extra drama into the proceedings. Crawford mines the character's poignancy, hinting both at wistfulness and a sense of quiet desperation.

Crawford, though, like a few other actresses here, tends to push too hard on the big notes in her songs, threatening to get a little shrill. She doesn't need to do that; she's miked, and her voice is strong enough as is.

Another of the performers who makes an impression is Brooke Morrison, playing the sexy, confident Sheila, who is beginning to fret about how much longer her career as a performer can last. Morrison vamps entertainingly, with a self-awareness that recalls Kim Cattrall in "Sex and the City."

The actor who really stops the show, though, is Alexander Cruz. His monologue detailing his character Paul's early years - and the accompanying abuse, bullying, and shame - is presented perfectly. Cruz plays it simple and real. It's a beautiful acting job.

This American Theatre International production, which was still running at deadline, features direction and choreography re-staged from the original by Baayork Lee, who was an original "Chorus Line" cast member. In fact, the character of Connie Wong is based on her life. Lee was also an assistant choreographer to Bennett. In short: She is incredibly well-qualified to direct this show, and she brings a sense of history and understanding to the endeavor.

A lovely note: In the program, the Garde dedicates these performances to "Chorus Line" composer Hamlisch, who opened the Garde Arts Center's first season in 1989 with a concert.

"A Chorus Line" will be performed again at the Garde at 7:30 tonight. Tickets are $42-$60; (860) 444-7373.



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