‘A Chorus Line’ at Drury Lane Theatre embraces 1970s Broadway — and why we love musicals – Chicago Tribune

Is there anything more fun than an opening night for “A Chorus Line?” When the curtain rose Friday night at the Drury Lane Theatre on a stage packed with dancers, the place erupted. I remember thinking that, just months or so ago, we’d also all have been weeping at the return of something that we’d worried was gone forever. Mercifully, not so. But from such a lesson should be born greater appreciation.

Performers, especially those who are first and foremost dancers, invariably raise their game for this especially sacred text in Broadway circles, drawn from first-person testimony of so-called gypsies in the early 1970s, when show creator Michael Bennett coaxed Broadway ensemble members into a rehearsal studio on New York’s Lower East Side, turned on his tape recorder and asked them about their deepest fears and insecurities.

The resultant musical had dubious ethical origins: the dancers signed waivers to their own life stories, which appeared in the show virtually verbatim, although Bennett much later cut them into his royalties. But it was also a masterpiece from the get-go: Bennett had the brilliant idea of hiring Marvin Hamlisch, then a successful if schmaltzy movie composer, to compose the score with then-underrated lyricist Edward Kleban. Great musicals tend to be built on the power of contrast: Here you had what was, for the day, highly experimental material (we never leave a rehearsal room), but with a knockout score full of melodic hooks, lush strings and thrilling pizazz. It was safe enough for the mainstream audience and it ran for years. In fact, an argument can be made that no musical in history had a greater impact on the economic fortunes of Broadway. Simply put, “A Chorus Line” changed everything. And it still can.

Drury Lane’s production, directed by Jane Lanier, mercifully honors the material throughout and remains in the original period, resisting the now-pervasive temptation to update (or, worse, deconstruct) and thus ruin so exquisite a portrait of a specific time, place and value system. Andrew Boyce’s set is a shrewd piece of design: it says what it has to say but always seems controlled by the performers themselves.

The cast of "A Chorus Line" at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

We’re all perfectly capable of critiquing the then-acceptable behavior of the tyrannical director, Zach (the superbly calibrated Ryan Watkinson), whose callous, emotional manipulations very much prefigured today’s discontent with the price paid by the humans subjected to the so-called “method.” Lanier and Watkinson don’t overpush that comparison, though, and leave you with the sense that Zach is, of course, himself a victim of a brutal system where time is money. Or so he’d have you believe.

The cast is younger than you often see at this show, but that works just fine. I’d say that the company has different strengths: there are powerful singers and less secure vocalists, superb dancers and those consumed by getting through the choreography. Acting chops similarly vary. All of that is, in fact, as it should be. Rather than spend too much time signaling out individuals, which never feels right with this show, I’ll just say that what matters most here, the emotional vulnerability, the grit and the openness to the material are ubiquitous and well served by Lanier’s staging, which is performed, atypically, with an intermission (no problem there; we all need our breaks). If you’re not moved by this group, winners and losers both, I fear for the state of your heart.

The highlights? Surprisingly, it was Alley Ellis’ soaring but guileless soprano, grabbing hard onto the power and pain in “At the Ballet” that hit me the most in the gut, although there was something about the stoicism of Yesy Garcia’s Diana (she who “felt nothing”) that went far beyond the usual, too. But as Sara Andreas’ Cassie notes, that’s part of an unselfish, ensemble-driven star performance, they’re all special. Truly. In a variety of ways and their weaknesses, if that’s the word, just add to the veracity.

With titles like this, I always worry most about whether or not older folks who want to introduce the show to young people will feel, as they walk out into the cold air, like their charges got what they remember with such fondness. You can be sure.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


Review: “A Chorus Line” (3.5 stars)

When: Through March 19

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Tickets: $85-$95 at 630-530-0111 and drurylanetheatre.com

Martin Ortiz Tapia and cast of "A Chorus Line" at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

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