"A Chorus Line" in the 21st century comes with references that weren't around when it debuted in 1975. Back then, we weren't bombarded with reality shows of singing and dancing competitions, interspersed with mini-documentaries about the performers' personal lives. Back then, the only backstage invitation to a Broadway-style audition was the smash-hit, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
The show continues to have a worldwide following despite potential challengers because the original concept by creator Michael Bennett -- best summed up in the song "What I Did for Love" -- doesn't get lost amid the small-screen hoopla and commercial breaks. Even after repeated viewings of "A Chorus Line," from its 15-year Broadway run to revivals to tours to the 1985 movie, there are new strands to discover or steal your focus, as in the Pittsburgh CLO show now at the Benedum Center.
The experience for a first-timer could well be as exhilarating and revelatory as it was for any newbie seeing "A Chorus Line" kicking its heels and tipping its top hats back in the day. For repeat viewers, CLO's production can be just as satisfying and perhaps more meaningful.
My perspective now is far different than the college student who was wowed by the Broadway show back in the 1970s. For example, as performers stepped forward to tell his or her story during CLO's opening-night show, their tales of parental relationships resonated more than in previous productions. Emily Fletcher, who as jaded veteran Sheila provided a lot of laughs with her deceptively disdainful delivery, joined with the bouncing Bebe of Pittsburgher Gina Philistine and Emily Rice's big-voiced Maggie in "At the Ballet," a song that zeros in on the lasting effects of distant fathers and out-of-touch mothers. Bryan Knowlton as Paul tells the tale of growing up gay, circa the 1970s, which might seem dated if it did not build toward a discovery about his parents' unconditional love.
The spotlight shined on other performers who earned their solos in the spotlight, including Gabrielle Ruiz as Diana, who belts with feeling for the ironically titled "Nothing" and who leads the company in "What I Did for Love." Point Park's Nadine Isenegger, the show-stopping Cassie, sings and dances her heart out for a chance to be on the line and perhaps reconnect with her former live-in love, the show's director.
Vocals were uneven throughout but the dancing mostly on par with any production recapturing the Bennett-Bob Avian choreography, honed over many years and many companies by Baayork Lee, who directed the CLO show and handpicked the cast. Performers were crowd-pleasers as much for song-and-dance talent (CLO veteran Kevin Curtis as Richie) as for their comedic antics, including Heather Parcells' ditzy Judy and Theo Lencicki and Hilary Michael Thompson as opposites-attract couple Al and Kristine.
We first meet the 17 hopefuls who will stand on the CLO's version of "the line" during an early phase of the process that includes balletic dance combinations, personality-revealing stumbles and a few choice mumbles, as they set out to do justice to the James Kirkwood-Nicholas Dante script, with character-driven songs featuring Edward Kleban's lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch's infectious score.
The audition is led by Australian Grant Turner as director Zach, who gets to display a few dance moves of his own while whittling down the group. For much of the next for two hours, without intermission, he will become the disembodied voice of authority who will choose the Broadway-bound ensemble of eight.
A few days before the show opened as the first inhouse production of Pittsburgh CLO's 66th season, Mr. Turner, who has played Zach on Broadway, summed up why performers return to "A Chorus Line" again and again. "It's so important," he said, "because we get to tell what we do; it's our lives." So far, nobody does it better.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published June 16, 2012 7:30 PM