'A Chorus Line' — SF Playhouse's production is a singular sensation

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday July 11, 2023
Share this Post:
The finale of San Francisco Playhouse's 'A Chorus Line' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)
The finale of San Francisco Playhouse's 'A Chorus Line' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)

It may not be the first Broadway musical about the making of a Broadway musical, but "A Chorus Line" is certainly the most prominent. When it opened in the early 1975, the musical, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, a book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, with direction and choreography by Michael Bennett, is credited with reviving The Broadway scene in the 1970s.

This is ironic, considering that Bennett's show —developed through extensive workshops with auditioning dancers— critiques the very structure and nature of auditions, performances and the undervalued worth of dancers in show business.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, which ran for decades at the Shubert Theater in multiple casts, in revivals, touring productions and even an anniversary staging, is given a rousing, emotional and strong new life under the direction of Bill English at San Francisco Playhouse.

Connie (Ruri Kodama) describes her long career to the other auditioning dancers (L-R: Tony Conaty, Dalton Bertolone, Nicole Helfer, Alison Ewing, Nicholas Yenson) in San Francisco Playhouse's 'A Chorus Line.' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

The company had a risky proposition ahead of it. Recreate a classic 1970s musical without any anachronisms or changes. Despite a few dated references to Robert Goulet and Jill St. John, the book has had no interference and retains a timeless quality.

The setup is deceptively simple. A choreographer (Keith Pinto as Zach) and his assistant (Ann Warque as Lori) line up more than a dozen dancers and give them a set of routines. Some fumble while others overdo it. The cast is soon cut down to what will become a mere eight performers chosen for the chorus of an unnamed musical in development.

But instead of just asking for their resume and headshots —possibly one of the most iconic moments in the entirety of musical theater— Zach asks personal questions of the dancers. Some bluff their way through performative monologues until the director breaks them down and asks them to be more honest.

What we get in Marvin Hamlisch's songs, now vaunted to iconic status, and the book, are a series of absorbing personal and painful memories about what led these people to become dancers. The rotating mirrors serve not only as a reference to a dance studio, but a reflective exploration of each dancer's life and career.

Tony Conaty shines as Mike, the plucky macho dancer who, after following his sister to dance class, takes up the art form on his own ("I Can Do That"). His sleeveless T-shirt helps display his elegant port de bras throughout the show.

The trio of Bebe (Jillian A. Smith), Sheila (Allison Ewing), and Maggie's (Danielle Cheiken) in the hauntingly beautiful "At the Ballet" is a stand out, but so are all the other musical numbers. Comic relief is provided in "Sing" and "Dance Ten; Looks Three."

While three other actors play (probably or openly) gay characters (Dalton Bertolone as Greg, Zeke Edmonds as Mark, Nicholas Yenson as Bobby), it is Paul (Alex Rodriguez) who is most remembered as the vulnerable one. His monologue —surprisingly bereft of a musical number— recounts his performing in drag and a final conversation with his parents before he leaves them.

When Paul is injured, Zack demands that the dancers consider what they will do when they can no longer perform. This leads to the popular favorite song, "What I Did for Love."

San Francisco Playhouse's 'A Chorus Line' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

And while love is never gone, something's still painful in the distant relationship between Cassie, a one-time lead performer now relegated to auditioning for chorus, and her past relationship with Zack, as she begs for a simple small part. In the iconic dance solo, "The Music and The Mirror," the role of Cassie, originated by Donna McKecknie, is given a visceral emotional interpretation by choreographer Nicole Helfer.

The bare black stage transforms into a series of mirrors that accompany Cassie as she desperately tries to show off her last layback in an attempt to regain her status as worthy of a chorus job.

Helfer's choreography throughout the show may tip a hat to Michael Bennett, but she doesn't borrow too much. It's amazing to see '70s-era Broadway-style movements recreated perfectly while still retaining a flair of originality.

This is prominently displayed in the beguiling "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love," a montage of adolescent angst-filled monologues and songs that could be exhausting, but —under Helfer's choreography and the stellar individual performances— builds into one of the most touching moments of the show. As Diana, Samantha Rose Cárdenas crushed the emotive "Nothing," and Mike Oesch's lighting expertly isolates multiple moments.

The only critique might be that the golden-costumed glitzy finale "One," while giving each actor a short bow before the crowd-pleasing kickline (and its costume quick-change; kudos to Costume Designer Abra Berman), ends a bit abruptly without room for a curtain call, except for a nod by the accomplished musicians. There may be no curtain, but this production deserves numerous curtain calls and standing ovations.

While elaborately-staged local and touring musicals will come and go, the testament of "A Chorus Line" is that a nearly-bare stage and actors (mostly) in rehearsal clothes can bring more theatrical insight and emotional impact than any special effects.

'A Chorus Line,' at San Francisco Playhouse. $15-$100; thru Sept 9. 450 Post St. www.sfplayhouse.org

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.