Dir: Bob Avian
110 min • Palladium Theatre • From February 19, 2013
It’s been 37 years since A Chorus Line had its West End premiere at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Despite a 15 year run on Broadway, numerous US national tours and a 1985 film (true, it tanked at the box office), the show has remained unrevived whilst the West End audiences have seen much come and go: three revivals of Joseph, four productions of Cabaret and some would say far too many resurrections of the perpetually reanimated Rat Pack, Rocky Horror Show and Grease.
So it’s about time that the gold lamė was dusted off and allowed to see the light of the fresnels again.
Bob Avian returns to direct the project that he originally co-choreographed with Michael Bennett all those years ago at a 299 seater off-Broadway theatre, and you can tell that the show holds an incredibly dear place not only on his résumé, but in his heart. The choreography is not reworked but has evolved from the original, something that some purists may not be thrilled by, but this is not Fosse choreography that has been set in stone and reproduced. Unlike the film of A Chorus Line, the star of the stage show really is the dance, and the ensemble who perform it. Throughout the show, the characters auditioning for the prize of employment (oh god they need that job) reveal not only their stories but also parts of their selves that entertain the audience and also surprise the characters in question.
The London cast is brimming over with dazzling talent. ‘Zach’ the director, played by Jon Partridge (who is at times just one lit cigarette away from channelling the ghost of Bob Fosse), commands the auditions well despite spending the majority of the show as a disembodied sultry voice. He is joined by London stage stalwarts Scarlett Strallen and Leigh Zimmerman, who intertwine seamlessly with West End newcomers and other professional triple threats, though Leigh is gifted many of the script’s best one-liners as ‘Sheila’ the more ‘seasoned’ of the auditionees. But it is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Diana who just manages to steal the evening, leading the 11 o’clock number, ‘What I Did For Love’.
It is difficult to find fault with the production itself. Set in 1975 is plays true to the era, with the late Marvin Hamlisch’s score switching from ballet and tap sections to dance floor disco with a flip of a wah-wah pedal. Theoni V Aldredge’s costume designs evoke the pre-1980s legwarmer look of ‘Fame’ by fearlessly embracing the tight nylon of the era (special mention must be made to Jon Partridge’s pecs for best supporting role in brown). The stage is almost totally bare, the only scenery is the obligatory single white line and a row of large rotating mirrors, carried across from the original production, that come & go at various points. Simplicity really does allow the dancers to shine, and is helped by precise lighting. (A small gripe is that it is a little unsubtle in places, with some lighting state changes being more like an off to on switch than a fade.)
Many of the audience members around me seemed almost outraged to find a show could be almost 2 hours in length without an interval. It is perhaps a bit too long in that respect, but that was the way it was originally written and I believe that trying to insert an interval to please a modern audience would have been a mistake. So my advice? Pee beforehand, and don’t worry about your text messages, they’ll still be waiting for you after the show.
A Chorus Line was the first major Broadway musical that not only had openly gay characters but it was the first show in which they were given songs and script that delved unashamedly into their private lives and sexuality. The show itself, like many musicals, is faulted, and if you think too long about its construction as a piece of theatre it is easy to find loose threads to pick at. At times, with such a large ensemble cast who each play a named and defined character with their own backstory, it can feel like the audience is being batted from character to character too much, dropping in for a line about getting their looks from ‘the ugly side’ of the family, before popping to stage left for breast enlargement, then hurling upstage to parents having sex. At the start of the evening each character gives their name and age, but by the end of the night, the audience inevitably leave humming the finale ‘One’, and besides the strong female soloists, how many of the characters they’ve been listening to for the past 2 hours can the audience name?
But that is the whole point of the show, a group of incredibly talented individuals, who in the end become unrecognisable as ‘One’ single Chorus Line.
Go, see it, it is a classic and it would be hard, if not impossible, to find a better production of it. Don’t wait another 37 years for it to come back.