On a mostly-bare stage at the Benedum Center, 17 professional dancers compete for eight spots in the chorus of a Broadway musical in Pittsburgh CLO’s production of A Chorus Line. Although the set design is minimal, consisting of a long horizontal white line downstage and rotating mirrors at the back, the stage pulses with color and energy for two hours as the auditioners who “really need this job” leave it all on the stage in CLO’s terrific, traditional staging of the classic musical.
To be fair, A Chorus Line is a show that doesn’t get reimagined. Creator Michael Bennett’s vision for the original production (which, from 1983 to 1997, held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical in history) is iconic and powerful. Likely due partly to Bennett’s untimely death of AIDS-related lymphoma, nearly every subsequent restaging of the musical has sought to reanimate his vision.
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of A Chorus Line serves as a faithful homage to Bennett, directed and choreographed by none other than his assistant choreographer from the show’s 1975 premiere, Baayork Lee. Lee originated the role of Connie and has gone on to direct and choreograph A Chorus Line many times over both nationally and internationally, “continuing [Bennett’s] legacy,” as her bio notes. There’s no one better, it seems, to bring Pittsburgh a staging so closely-aligned to the show’s original concept.
In search of authenticity from his show’s supporting dancers, Zach (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the Broadway director casting A Chorus Line’s unnamed show-within-a-show, requires those auditioning to share something of themselves that’s vulnerable and true. From this premise springs a beloved American musical that speaks to anyone who ever wanted or thought they might want to perform on a stage.
A Chorus Line carefully considers the lives of dancers, showing both the rigor of professional performance and the dynamics behind the decision to make it a career. Soaring songs spill out, offering snippets of insight into the characters’ personalities and speaking to relatable commonalities in their histories, like adolescent growing pains, harsh remarks from caregivers, and an unquenchable thirst to perform.
Zach, who, for the majority of the show, is a disembodied voice piped through the PA system, wields his hiring power to coerce the dancers to respond to often frustratingly open-ended questions to get a sense of “who they are.” Although Zach behaves as though his demands are reasonable, to its credit, A Chorus Line realizes this is a hard question to answer, especially at a job interview. “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know,” a dancer sings in the show’s opening sequence. A Chorus Line also raises questions that plague creatives living under capitalism. It’s fairly depressing that the questions are perhaps now even more urgent than they were when the show debuted in 1975.
Bennett, who died in 1987 at 44, was, according to his New York Times obituary, “a prolific and indefatigable creator of dazzling stage images” who ”continually set the standards against which other new shows were judged.” He choreographed the original Broadway productions of Company, Follies, and Dreamgirls, among others, sometimes describing his niche as the “backstage musical.” Bennett created A Chorus Line from hours of recorded interviews with professional dancers and used music by the award-winning, powerhouse composer Marvin Hamlisch.
Although part of the show’s beauty and resonance comes from being an ensemble piece where each of the auditioners has at least one solo moment to shine, there were still several performers I wish I could have seen more of, including Tommy Bracco’s charming, gravely, tap dancin’ Mike, Jolina Javier as Connie, and the explosively talented Pittsburgh-raised E. Clayton Cornelious as Richie, who also performed in the 2006 Broadway revival that I was lucky enough to catch as a wide-eyed 12-year-old.
As is often the case with CLO, the production showcases a number of other impressive locally-raised and/or locally-trained talents, including Davis Wayne as the precise and mostly-quiet dance captain, Larry, and Isaiah Joshua Foster, who excelled as an understudy for Don, a character whose defining feature is his past work as a stripper.
I highly recommend this product to both first-timers and long-time fans of the quintessential Broadway show.
A Chorus Line. Continues through Sun., July 31. Benedum Center. 7th St. and Penn Ave., Downtown. $29-95. pittsburghclo.org/shows/a-chorus-line