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A CHORUS LINE

A CHORUS LINE

Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch, and lyrics by Edward Kleban

MainStage Irving-Las Colinas

Directed By Michael Serrecchia
Musical Direction By Scott A. Eckert
Assistant Direction/Choreography By Megan Kelly Bates
Choreography By Julie Russell Stanley
Guest choreographer- Eddie Gutierrez
Lighting Designer- Jason Foster
Set Designer- Dane Tuttle
Costumer Designer-Michael Robinson
Stage Manager-Branson White
Properties Designer- Tiffany Bergh

CAST:
TJ Firneno (Zach)
Grace Bradbury (Cassie)
Adelina Clamser (Maggie)
Preston Isham (Mike)
Caitlin Jones (Val)
Alejandra Bigio (Diana)
Leah Flores (Connie)
Daniel S. Lim (Larry)
Evan Anderson (Greg)
Christine Phelan (Sheila)
Dakota Medlin (Bobby
Layla Brent-Tompkins (Bebe)
Scarlett O’Hare (Judy)
Kevin Davis Jr. (Richie)
Jake Harris (Al)
Zoe Roberts (Kristine)
JP Berry (Mark)
Jonah Munroe (Paul)
Nate Frederickson (Don)
Danielle Richards (Tricia)
Stephanie Butler (Vicki)
Christian Joelle Jones (Lois)
Ryan Ramirez (Frank)
Danny Vanegas (Butch)
Blake Seabourn (Roy)
Damian Gomez (Tom)
Scott Bardin (Pit Singer)
Cathy Parks Bardin (Pit Singer)


Reviewed Performance: 11/2/2019

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

When it comes to Michael Bennett’s A CHORUS LINE (ACL), I have seen at least thirty or more productions of this musical in a vast assortment of companies. Equity and Non-Equity, National tours, High School, and college. Even my own Alma Mater (UNT) drama dept did it! I caught twice the 2006 Broadway revival at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Over time I have soaked in everything I could find about this show about an audition of dancers. There are some terrific books about the making of the musical as well about the life of its creator Michael Bennett. I still have my copies of such titles as “One Singular Sensation” By Kevin Kelly, “A Chorus Line and the Musicals of Michael Bennett” By Ken Mandelbaum, “On the Line-The Creation of A Chorus Line” By Robert Viagas. I also keep a treasured personally autographed copy of Donna McKechnie’s (the original Cassie) marvelous autobiography titled "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life" which is a must-read.

There is a documentary that every musical theater fan should view titled EVERY LITTLE STEP (2008). It goes into engrossing depth into the creation of ACL. With interviews, rare footage, etc.

But the one item you should avoid at ALL costs is the horrifying film version of ACL starring Michael Douglas. Oh, sweet lord, one of the worst movie musicals ever made. I’d rather be punished and sent to satin’s entertainment salon and forced to see Ex-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer as the principal dancer in MAGIC MIKE!

I have been extremely fortunate to cross paths with a couple of original Broadway cast members of ACL, one is a major character and driving force of the piece, Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie AKA Cassie. I first met her when she did her solo concert here in Dallas and I did an interview with her. Then my lucky stars above lined up and she was our special guest star for THE COLUMN AWARDS Gala. It was there backstage and on stage where we bonded, talked, and laughed. We have since kept in touch such as when she returned to Dallas with the concert 4GIRLS4 which I attended and visited her backstage, and in New York (she was in THE VISIT on Broadway as Chita Rivera’s understudy).

Another original cast member came while attending the 2006 Broadway revival of ACL. I had the esteemed honor of meeting by complete surprise backstage Baayork Lee (the original Connie). She has made a career of recreating, staging and directing productions of ACL all over the world. For this last revival, she re-staged the choreography.

This is a trend that is not new on Broadway. Which is where original dancers of a Broadway musical become the Director/Choreographer/Artistic Advisor of a Broadway revival of their original hit musical. Examples of these include Ann Reinking, Chet Walker, and Gwen Verdon with FOSSE and Ann Reinking with CHICAGO.

(Full disclosure here: I was directed by Mr. Serrecchia in the Regional premiere of the musical PAGEANT in 2011.)

Here in the DFW area, Michael Serrecchia, who originated the role of Frank in ACL has directed and staged several productions of this history-making musical, and now he brings talents and wisdom to Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas (MILC). You can see Serrecchia’s blazing talents as Frank on YouTube. When ACL performed at the 1976 Tony Awards (when ACL was nominated for Best Musical), they performed “I Hope I Get It’. When Zach is telling the guy with a headband to look up- that is Serrecchia!

I highly commend and sincerely thank Mr. Serrecchia for doing something with the opening number that I have NEVER seen in ANY production in that he has cast all body types for the audition sequence. This truly reflects what auditions look like. In this society of social media bullying and body shaming, it was so incredibly moving to see all these body types dancing. This speaks volumes regarding casting. Bravo sir. Bravo. I hope other directors around town will see this and follow Serrecchia’s lead. It’s a powerful statement in my book.

I have seen directors keep the musical grounded in the original era (1970s) and others that place it in the current year. I saw a phenomenal version when I lived in Orlando FL that had it placed in the current year, thus updating the book (like replacing Robert Goulet with Backstreet Boys). For MILC, Serrecchia has kept it in 1975.

Going by the press release and on the theater’s Facebook page the theater wants the public and the audience to know that this production is helmed by an original cast member of this history-making musical. If you look at the production team, they also have brought in a guest choreographer (Eddie Gutierrez) who played “Paul” in last year’s New York City Center’s production. Thus, those of us who are beloved fans of the original are expecting to see at the very least a somewhat overall semblance or homage to the original. Not an exact replica, but at the very least have a really close aura of it. At Saturday’s performance, I saw at times glorious, moving moments, and at other sections I was left perplexed or at times it just didn’t reach the emotional arc.

I want to be VERY CLEAR on these critiques, I am NOT comparing this production to the original Broadway production (never saw it) NOR the 2006 revival. I just want to point that out now. But as someone who has seen over 30 productions and have read so much about this musical and its creator and interviewed Bennett’s muse, and for this review went through six hours of YouTube video clips to refresh my memory-all of that is what I am using as my research.

This musical does not require much scenic design, this was before the era of big epic sets. For this production Dane Tuttle’s mirrors did not hang above the dancers nor move or turn. These were sorely missed during Cassie’s “Music and the Mirror”, because they give Cassie’s characterization and subtext painful and sensual subtext during her bigger than life dance piece, but alas they were not there. Instead, they were placed far upstage and became an entire wall. For the finale, the black scrim revealed not the sparkling, art deco marquee with its shiny array of light bulbs backdrop that bathes the dancers in their champagne satin costumes. Here it is a pink backdrop with a white lattice pattern on it. It was pretty, but it looked out of place and did not fit with ACL.

Jason Foster’s lighting created visual excitement. His best sequence for sure was for “Hello twelve, Hello Thirteen. Hello Love”. There were a couple of hiccups that have become staples when it comes to ACL. For example, when Zack tells the line this was not going to the usual callback, a blinding white follow spot slowly goes down the line, capturing and framing the face of each dancer. This is the first time we finally get to see each performer as a human being, not just a faceless body. Not dancing, not moving. Just stripped of their “weapons”. But for the MILC, Foster has lighting coming from above changing, but it is so subtle, you hardly even see it. Another example is for “Music and the Mirror”. Normally there are strips of lighting at the lip of the stage downstage. When Cassie begins to dance, they light up and reflect off the mirrors so beautifully. But alas they were none for this version.

The musicians in the pit were outstanding, especially the percussion! They were by far one of the BEST I’ve heard that brought Marvin Hamlisch’s Tony Award-winning score to wonderful life. There were two minor missteps in the evening. In “Music and the Mirror”, the orchestra was a tad too loud and overpowered Grace Bradbury’s (Cassie) vocals. You saw that a thin mic was lowered from the fly rail which Ms. Bradbury stood underneath, but I think the mic also picked up the orchestra. The other music faux pas occurred in the Finale number “One”. When the girls appeared, the tempo seemed to speed up, this caused the first couple of girls to trip up causing a slight domino effect in the line of dancers to match the new tempo, but they soon adjusted when the entire cast went into the full circle and they were all back in brilliant sync.

In the end, what makes ACL a spectacular evening of emotional musical theater is the cast. You MUST have a company of triple threats. Period. There’s no way around that. Their talents must be of the highest caliber in acting, singing, and dancing. And here’s the shocker, they don’t have to be Equity! Two of the best productions of ACL that I have ever seen one was a Non-Equity production in Orlando Florida and the other was a College production in Boston. As for the cast of Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas, as a full company, they are full of bursting energy and committed to the material. But as for being true triple threats, some succeed, and others that although they do their very best, alas they do not quite achieve the same level as some of their castmates. The best company number by far was “Hello twelve, Hello thirteen, Hello Love”. This number displays Michael Bennett’s magnificent and unique eye for staging and choreography, which this company executes with smashing success. The vocals here are the best of the entire night as well, as they were robust and filled the theater with vocal brilliance. The audience rewarded them with resounding cheers and applause.

Alas in some of the other numbers there were issues in execution of the choreography or vocal problems. In the opening number, “I Hope I Get It” there was difficulty in completing the choreography for some members of the line. It occurred again during the tap dance sequence and the finale. There were also some harmonizing key issues during “sing” and “What I did for Love”.

The two standout, superior performances of the evening came from Alejandra Bigio as Diana Morales and Caitlin Jones as Val. Ms. Bigio had a fresh, pop soprano voice that added a new sound to Morales’s songs. What I found quite impressive was how she created a different and unique Diana. It wasn’t the usual “tough as nails Bronx girl” that I usually see from actresses in this role. Bigio gave her a softer shell, thus when she did show her tougher side as in her solo “Nothing”, it gave her characterization a richer subtext. Her vocals for “What I did For Love” graced the scales with vocal smoothness. Finally, it was REFRESHING to see an ACTUAL Hispanic in this role! The last time I saw a Latina in this role was Natalie Cortez in the Broadway revival in 2006. Caitlin Jones gets to sing the best comedic number from the score, “Dance Ten, Looks Three”. Ms. Jones is a revelation as Val because she does the impossible! She makes the number her own! Both vocally and emotionally. She finds new comedic beats and moments within the song that I have never heard before. She then adds facial expressions and body movements to give her comedy a solid button. She avoids making Val some breathy Marilyn Monroe or a buxom blonde. She instead constructs a new blonde for today’s blonde who bought her goods from the Wizard. She had the audience roaring in laughter and received the loudest applause of the evening for her solo number.

Special kudos to the following on the line who delivered entertaining performances as well: Jonah Monroe (Paul), Adelina Clamser (Maggie), Zoe Roberts (Kristine), Evan Anderson (Greg), and Dakota Medlin (Bobby).

I must single out Damian Gomez as Tom. He is the PERFECT example of “Make your moment count!”. Because if I can still remember his bit over half of the principals five days later, well that’s telling you something about his stage presence. Gomez portrayed one of the cut dancers in the opening number. For his character choice, he decided to be the one who counts out loud to himself! It is subtle, but just enough that my eyes kept going back to him because it was so damn hysterical! Here are all these dancers leaping and jumping, and Gomez is mouthing “5, 6, 7, 8!” I wished that Tom had made the callbacks! Way to go Mr. Gomez!

Finally, we have TJ Firneno (Zach), Christine Phelan (Shelia), and Grace Bradbury (Cassie), all who deliver satisfying, crowd pleasing performances, but I so wanted them to delve much deeper into the subtext of their characterizations.

As Zach, TJ Firneno starts at such a high intensity, barking out orders to the auditioning dancers, and he stays at this high level that he has nowhere to go. When he gets to the dramatic scene with Cassie (Grace Bradbury), he peaked way too soon earlier in the evening, that the intensity is lost. These characters are based on Bennett and McKechnie’s real relationship. Her autobiography goes deeply into this. She loved him dearly. It crushed Bennett that she (McKechnie) went to LA. Firneno needed much more levels within his subtext and emotions to give his characterization raw organic truth. One of the most powerful moments of the book is when Zach finally casts the show. Remember, he has made these dancers open up to him. They have cried, yelled, and revealed their hearts before him. He now sees them for the FIRST time as people, as who they really are. Now he must cut half of them. When he calls out the names, the audience reacts to the names called, but when he tells one of them “Sorry, I’m wrong. Please go back in line.” That usually gets the audience to gasp loudly in the dark. But at Saturday’s performance, Firneno rushed through the names as though it meant nothing. That was a haunting dramatic moment lost. However, I was touched by how he handled Paul’s situation on stage at the end of his monologue.

Shelia is that Broadway dancer that has over a dozen Broadway credits to her name, but all in the chorus. She just doesn’t have the talents to move up to supporting or lead. And she knows it. She also knows that she’s getting closer to that age of not even making the chorus. She will bust anyone’s balls because she’s been through it all and doesn’t have the time to waste it on the newbies. Remember, she knew the routine when SHE was up front. But she came from a childhood whose parents had a horrific marriage and bitter divorce. Christine Phelan is a captivating beauty, but looks too innocent and lacks the iron, cold steel exterior that Sheila has. Sheila oozes sexual vixen, while Phelan is a sweet ingénue. I sincerely appreciated her performance Saturday evening, it’s just that I so wanted the dramatic layers and colors in Sheila’s bitter, raw subtext to ebb out so much more.

Cassie was molded and created around Donna McKechnie. From her personal life and especially her dance abilities. In her autobiography and our interview, we discussed how the choreography was created to fit her body and talents. McKechnie has a body that can-do things that no mere mortal can do. The way it contorts and shapes to percussion and music, no one can do that-or has since. But then to be able to belt soaring soprano vocals full out without showing ANY hint of exhaustion. Cap that off and do an intense, gut-wrenching scene that has levels of pain, loss, love, and desperation that needs the RIGHT actress to crest through those emotions with the exact right subtext, level, and acting craft.

I state all that because there is just one Donna McKechnie. You can’t put her mold on any other female who does the role. I’ve seen such stellar stars as Charlotte d'Amboise, Jessica Lee Goldyn, and Robyn Hurder tackle the role. They all had to create their version of Cassie BUT still had to execute the majority of Bennett’s original choreography with slight adjustments. The acting and singing still had to be at a high level as the original. Mind you, their own vocals and acting craft, but nonetheless still at that high level of commitment.

So, in all those versions of ACL that I have sat through, I have seen some incredible women do the role and some who simply collapsed under the pressure and failed.

For this production, it is Grace Bradbury who steps into Cassie’s iconic red chiffon skirt. This is not her first time to portray the role as she did the role at Booker T Washington High School. She is an exquisite, beautiful girl. So, it just breaks my heart to say this, but she is simply way too young to be playing this role. Cassie is a woman in her 30s (and I think she says it on stage), who left Broadway to be a movie star in L.A., breaking Zach’s heart. She returns as a failure, to start all over again. She returns with a lot of mileage on her soul and heart. This MUST read within her subtext, acting tools, body language, and facial expressions in her combative scene with Zach. Bradbury tries her best to explore this, but she doesn’t have the punch in the gut agony of life subtext to bleed out so that we the audience are taken aback by this woman begging for a life preserver so she won’t drown, or worst. I give Ms. Bradbury immense kudos for trying, but her gorgeous youth just doesn’t connect with who Cassie is in regard to the book and score, and real life. I sincerely believe when Bradbury is older and returns to this role, she will be a powerhouse in it.

I wrap my review with this: I know I was nitpicky with this review (I usually am in my reviews), it’s because I love this musical so much. The general theater-going public who will be attending the show will not even notice, nor will they be dissecting the production, or have so much knowledge about the show as myself. They are going because they want to be entertained and enjoy this musical, and THAT they will get with this production.

Applause must go to Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas for producing and mounting a difficult, complex musical as A CHORUS LINE. This season so far it seems has had most theater companies around the metroplex playing it safe with family-friendly shows or those ear-bleeding warhorse titles. So, for MILC to tackle A CHORUS LINE, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. Even with the minor bumps, they have succeeded and brightly shimmered with this production like the iridescent rhinestones that adorn the satin top hats that cast wear in the finale number of “One”.

A CHORUS LINE
A Chorus Line plays through November 9, with performances on Friday at 7:30 PM, Saturday at 7:30 PM, Sunday at 2:30 PM, Tickets start at only $25 and are on sale at www.IrvingArtsCenter.com or www.MainStageIrving.com. Tickets are also available by phone at 972.252.2787 and in person at the Irving Arts Center Box Office.