Signature’s ‘A Chorus Line’ proves musicals can evolve in the right creative hands

A Chorus Line is still one of those musicals you will sing about to your grandchildren,” wrote theater and dance critic Clive Barnes in his 1975 New York Times review for A Chorus Line. Barnes had an eye for the theatrical aspects of A Chorus Line but also how it was (and still is) movement as storytelling, a conversation by dancers with an audience.

The cast of ‘A Chorus Line’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line has already been duly praised by DCMTA, but let me add, if you have not seen it on a major professional stage before, go. Just go.

Signature’s A Chorus Line is exuberantly alive in the creative hands of director Matthew Gardiner, Tony Award nominee and choreographer Denis Jones, and musical director Jon Kalbleisch with a vibrant 10-piece orchestra full of reeds, trumpets, a trombone, bass, and percussion.

When A Chorus Line first wowed audiences in 1975, it played against the backdrop of The Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath as well as the tough days for mid-1970’s Broadway (images of The Deuce and Vinyl flicker in my eyes from living in NYC back then). 

Gardiner’s A Chorus Line connects to our current world and a completely new generation with new non-performing arts emergencies: the climate crisis, #MeToo, and fierce “do-or-die” political civil war.

With some freshened-up dance steps and movement routines propelled by outstanding performances, A Chorus Line looks forward. It seems in line with revivals of other classic musical productions such as the Tony Award-winning Oklahoma and the unseen but already talked about West Side Story. Musicals with pedigrees that have been re-envisioned for current times and tastes, but use the fine bones of the original visions.

The cast of ‘A Chorus Line’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Also beyond the expressive movements and heartfelt singing that propel A Chorus Line is the character of Zach, played by Matthew Risch. Zach is still a task-master supreme. He is a man out for perfection in others as well as within himself. He aims to mold others into an anonymous team, a group of live set dressing in a way. Zach could be accused of running drills not rehearsals. Drills that to some might seem almost abusive, I suppose. But Risch makes his Zach a human being with fleeting moments of some decency. He is molding a team of dancers, ultimately four boys and four girls. And from where I sat in the audience, he was always in the moment: shuffling cards and pieces of paper, his hands and face animated even in silence. 

The group of eight that Zach wants are to be like backup singers for the headlining singer. They add another dimension, but they are not to stand out as individuals. That is the true beauty of A Chorus Line. More than a dozen dancers are given the ability to become an individual in the conceit of an audition. Each has an emotional life as a group member and as a person with plenty of confessed baggage. 

On the intimate Signature stage, it was not only the spoken words, singing, and movements that got my attention. It was also the verbally silent poses: the slouches, the carriage, how shoulders and hip positions were presented. The assertive swagger attitude, the “pick me, pick me “stance, or the “am I good enough” demeanor.

It didn’t take long for me to have posture register so that each character was clear, even if I never remembered all their names. Remarkably, the silent standing did not have a whiff of “acting” to me. Haven’t we all looked like one of them sometime in our lives?

A shout-out to Laura Stancyzk and Kelly Crandall D’Amboise (herself a dancer of note) for their casting work. 

Back to the long-gone Clive Barnes who was so prescient: He went on to write more than four decades ago, “I was even more impressed by the sincerity of its evident slickness, the real depth of its seeming ease and superficiality….the microcosm of a chorus line…into the macrocosm of a generation…this is one hell of an achievement.” (my emphasis).

Today’s musical theater is finding new ways to convey messages as demographics and tastes and even technology changes. With this polished production, Signature once again shows that musical theater continues to be relevant as it evolves.

Running time: Approximately 2 hours with no intermission

A Chorus Line plays through January 5, 2020, at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.


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