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It's On Line, Off Line, and Back Again in the Chorus

The Kirkland House Musical Opens

By Kelly A. E. mason

For the two nights it shows in New York before its close on Saturday, A Chorus Line will remain the longest running musical on Broadway. Its longevity is not without good reason--this intimate look at life in the performing arts has a brilliant text and score. A brilliant and exacting text and score.

In a play about performing, a director had better have damn good performers, and undergraduate director Eric E. Hyett has only mixed success in his Kirkland House production of the show. There are few in this mainly competent cast that dazzle the way the script calls them to. But what the cast lacks in proficiency it valiantly compensates for with energy. And a cast that puts on a spirited, even merely competent production of a great work like A Chorus Line can delight audiences.

The musical unfolds in a Broadway theater, under the watchful director Zach, powerfully played by Stefan A. Howells. Howells has a clipped British accident that adds a great stenotorian air to Zach, who mercilessly pushes the 21 dancers auditioning for eight parts. But Zach does not just push--he probes their psyches, tests their emotional limits. Zach is a complex, manipulative character who does his best to create good musical theater. Howells plays the role so adeptly that Zach loses none of his complexity as he assumes the role of Machiavelli, Svengali, father-figure and voyeur.

The two main foci of his energies in this audition are Paul (Erik Anderson), an emotionally troubled dancer, and Cassie (Jacqueline Sloan), a fallen star and Zach's former lover. But the other dancers, especially Sheila (Lyra O. Barrera) and Diana (Susan Levine) do not escape his scrutiny. Much of the text of the musical seems dated, especially some of the material on homosexuality; but the power of the script is a timeless power based in poignant statements about the nature of performance and, not coincidentally, pain.

The flaws in this engaging University production lie not so much in the dramatization as in the logistics of the musical. Many of the performers can sing and dance only marginally, and some of the choreography is uninspired and ill-conceived. A lot of the music, rather than being spectacular, is simply overbearing and kitschy. The band, particularly the brass section, gives a varied performance. And the Kirkland JCR, though a large stage on campus, is too small.

The undue limitations on the movements of the cast are especially striking in the opening dance number, "I Hope I Get It." The dancers, divided into smaller groups, perform a routine that Zach's assistant, Lori, has taught them. (In a clever casting twist, Hyett casted Christine van Kipnis, the show's choreographer, in the role.) In these dances, the individual groups are supposed to seem motley, but the cast members carry this to ridiculous lengths. They bounce into each other and dance more poorly than professionals ever would.

The number is redeemed by the staging of the melodic material which closes it. The dancers line up, holding their pictures before their faces, and softly, harmoniously sing, "I need this job, oh God, I need this job." This passage segues nicely into a solo sung by Paul. Here Anderson is a nicely delicate presence, and though his voice trembles a little to often, overall his rendition lulls.

Some of the beauty in A Chorus Line lies in the quantum mood leaps it makes, and the cast handles those leaps well enough. But the cast is consistently too chipper or too friendly for the text. Though the performers' high energy is entertaining, more integrity to the premise, a competitive audition, is required. The dancers seem to bond far too soon.

The scene preceeding "What I Did For Love" suffers from this upbeat tone--it is unconvincing. Cast members talk about what they would do if they had to stop dancing; for some, this is a definite possibility. But there is no feeling of terror conveyed to audience. There is only wistfulness. Levine, especially, is almost taxingly perky. Thankfully, she redeems herself in her soulful performance of "What I Did For Love."

Barrera is one of the few cast members spared the feel-good disease, and her casting is a blessing. She makes Sheila believably brassy, and zings oneliners at Zach with an enviable flair. Her characterization is flawless. She dances well, and though her vocal tone is flat, she is a dynamic presence.

Which is a good deal more than some of the other flat-voiced performers can claim. Notably wooden are Vanessa Parise as Maggie--she painfully distracts in "At the Ballet"--and John Weinstein as Al, the insipid husband of another dancer, Kristine. And though Brandon Lucas can sing, his casting as Don is a mistake. He seems out of place, even in this dated piece; he seems to have been borrowed from some '50s musical.

In contrast, Craig V. Hickman sparkles as Richie. His dancing is indubitably the best in the troupe, and he sings wonderfully. His performance in "Goodbye Twelve" is a definite high point in the production. And though less featured, Mecca Nelson's dancing and presence as Judy rival Hickman's intensity.

Sloan also gives a strong performance overall, but she has a few problems with vocal control, slipping out of her head voice to her chest voice and back again. This is unfortunate; her chest voice is infinitely more appealing. Her acting is compelling, but poorly focused. In a confrontational scene with Zach late in the show, Sloan too quickly reaches an emotional pitch she cannot sustain. But she moves nicely and proves herself a well-controlled dancer with a lot of sexual energy. Her dance solo, "The Music in the Mirror," could have been a lot stronger had the choreography been better.

The choreography in the later group numbers is noticeably the best of the show. "One," for example, is a nicely executed dance where the considerable energy of the cast seems more appropriate, and consequently more charming, than the earlier numbers. The catchy music certainly helps. But the final number, "Bows," is by far the best. The kickline is high, beautifully synchronized, and exciting--an excellent close.

So excellent that I left the theater thoroughly enchanted, humming, happy. Only later did I wonder why the rest of the show had not been that strong--as strong as A Chorus Line should be. Only later did I really care.

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