Friday, March 15, 2013

God, I Hope You Get It: A CHORUS LINE kicks high at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 3:30 PM

A Chorus Line
  • Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis
  • A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line took its first bows in 1975, 25-years before the reality television phenomenon took hold, 31-years before American Idol ever trended on Twitter, and 34-years before Glee took the personal/performative crossroads to new pop culture heights. Considering Michael Bennett's master plan to interview/audition a bunch of chorus dancers, musicalize their stories with Marvin Hamlisch, then, where possible, cast the original contributors as themselves, the material would lend itself to a radical, post-reality makeover. I'm not recommending that, mind you, but it's hard to not view A Chorus Line without also considering its progeny. Remarkably, with so much scripted reality under the bridge, the material almost always seems fresh. And the best thing about A Chorus Line today is that it still only requires the theater's barest essentials. Two boards and passion are enough. Toss in a spotlight and you're loaded for bear.


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I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled to see Theatre Memphis revive this old favorite. It's been a dozen years, I suppose, but there's so much good stuff out there that people should have the opportunity to discover before the reruns commence. But I can't fault them either. By any standard, A Chorus Line is quality theater, with a Pulitzer in the trophy cabinet. I'm especially thankful to have been in the audience on opening night to hear Donna McKechnie, the hoofer/actress who inspired the character Cassie, describe the more competitive and ridiculous aspects of the ACL creation myth. According to McKechnie, participants shared the most dramatic, over-the-top stories they could to increase their chances of making the final cut. She obviously had had her doubts as to whether or not it would ever amount to something worthwhile. But theater is, by nature, a transformative process, and when the most human elements of these stories were isolated, pared down, and translated into song, something very special happened. A Chorus Line, which ironically includes the line "nothing runs forever" ran on Broadway for 15-years, and toured extensively.

Directors typically treat the original production of ACL as a blueprint, and, while one might long to see some new light through old windows, it's also interesting to see a show handed down from from the source, with the aid of artists like McKechnie, and Mitzi Hamilton, another original collaborator who directed and choreographed Theatre Memphis' last production of the show.

Performing artists cope with rejection and humiliation like nobody else. They regularly hear maddening criticisms like, "You were too good," "Too pretty," or "You were just a little too right for the part." It's a weird world where landing a hemorrhoid commercial and the honor of telling the world about your hemorrhoids can be the most exciting news in years. The job makes a person incredibly self-reflective.

"For this, I studied Shakespeare," you think. "For this, I have struggled so hard? So I could be rejected for work that a respectable department-store Santa would turn down?" You look in the mirror and every defect is magnified. You know for a fact that your breath stinks, your nose is too pointy, you're aging badly, you can pinch an inch (and change), and on top of all that the last casting director didn't say anything and the one before that said he was looking for somebody with less polish, and you don't have any idea what that means.

Its been nearly 40-years. Will you give the man a ball, already?
  • It's been nearly 40-years. Will you give the man a ball, already?

Anyone who has ever been a working actor can tell a dozen stories about a life under weird, subjective scrutiny. The Hamlisch & Kleban songs, especially "At The Ballet," "Tits and Ass," and "Nothing," get at the angsty core of a career performer's predicament, and are just about as good as clever and multifaceted as anything that ever dripped out of Sondheim's pen. "What I did fo rLove," became an instant standard, and instant kitsch. Add to this all the dancing — good, glorious, and often (intentionally) awful — and you've got a show.

If you've seen any production of A Chorus Line before, Theatre Memphis' production will be instantly familiar. The staging is just about as traditional as it gets. With rare exceptions the only things that really change, from production to production, are the performers, whose honesty and willingness to swing for high fences, always make the difference between a limp retread, and a play that is, somehow, forever young and fresh.

Emma
  • Emma

Theatre Memphis' cast features the talents of Chris Cotten, Shannon Sparks, Guillermo R. Jemmott, Jr., Chris Hanford, Leah Beth Bolton, Lynden Lewis, and Noelia Warnette-Jones. They rise to the challenge in every way. In spite of the monologues, this is an ensemble piece and singling anybody out would be wrong. That said, let me be wrong and say that the Ostrander judges need to create a special, "Whatever It Is You Just Did, That!" award for Emma Crystal, who's a knockout as Sheila, an aging knockout.

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Theatre Memphis' production is directed and choreographed by Josh Walden, with associate director/choreographer Adam Lendermon and music direction by Gary Beard. Eric Sefton designed sound, and Jeremy Allen Fisher designed lights.

Nothing about this show is original. Nothing disappoints.

For tickets and times, here you go.

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