OH, THOSE mirrored panels. When they turn to reflect a stage full of lithe dancers in leotards and muscle shirts, you can't fight the thrill. Cue the straw hats, tight glutes and heartbreak: "A Chorus Line" has arrived at the Ahmanson Theatre, a syncopated time capsule of urban boogie, gay pride and natural curl.
In 1974, dancers Tony Stevens and Michon Peacock teamed with Broadway master Michael Bennett to interview a roomful of professional hoofers. The dancers were not kids but veterans. They spoke of bruised childhoods, sexual awakenings, endless rejection and their love for dance. James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante wove their words into a startlingly simple collage of monologue and movement set during a Broadway audition for an obsessive director. No three-act plot, no sidekicks, no carousels or kings of Siam. Just a bunch of working artists, standing in front of those iconic upstage mirrors -- the Me Decade's version of the Wizard's magic curtain. The goal isn't getting home, it's getting work: Make no mistake, this is a recession-era musical.
The play opened at the Public Theater and electrified Broadway when it transferred in July 1975. It won nine Tonys, another five Drama Desk Awards, and a Pulitzer. Composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban's songs -- "I Hope I Get It," "What I Did for Love" and the exuberant "One" -- were sung in the shower, in the closet and at barres all over America.
In 1984, "A Chorus Line" received a special Tony for being the longest-running show in Broadway history. (Then came Cameron Mackintosh, but that's another story.)
The revival is helmed by the show's original co-choreographer, Bob Avian; Baayork Lee, who created the role of Connie and served as Bennett's assistant choreographer, restages the dances. "A Chorus Line's" original set designer (Robin Wagner) and costumer (Theoni V. Aldredge) are also on hand. This is as close as you can get to 1975 without donning toe socks.
And what you do get is a polished, energetic production -- a loving rendering that favors consistency over surprise. The new blood includes some appealing performances, among them Kevin Santos as Paul, a Puerto Rican who played in drag shows because he moved like Cyd Charisse.
Ian Liberto's whacked out, silver-spoon Bobby nails his punch lines with glee. ("I was always thinking up these spectacular ways to kill myself. But then I realized -- to commit suicide in Buffalo is redundant.") And Nikki Snelson as Cassie, ex-lover of director Zach (a smooth Michael Gruber), delivers the goods in the terrific "The Music and the Mirror."
Too often, however, the cast seems to be quoting lines instead of inhabiting characters -- Avian's direction goes for recitation rather than rediscovery. Celebrating the joys of breast augmentation and rhinoplasty, Natalie Hall's plucky Val brings down the house but is content to repeat her shtick instead of deepen her character.
Capitalism's greatest compliment to an original idea is to absorb and commodify it. Madison Avenue stole Surrealism; the recording industry flipped hip-hop and reality television is an endless series of chorus lines. "Everybody in the whole . . . country wants to be a star," snaps Sheila (the elegant Emily Fletcher), and if "Chorus Line's" collection of wannabes can feel overly familiar, it's only because the audition has replaced immigration as the ultimate American hazing ritual, dog.
The irony of "A Chorus Line" is that its true spirit shows when these hopefuls dance, not speak. The talk serves as a setup, exposition for the real drama: watching them sweat their way to a dream, a paycheck or just proof they have a few years left before their knees give out. The enemy here isn't a ruthless director but time itself: Every move defies mortality. It's that sea of limbs, snapping and twirling their way toward grace -- maybe only 32 counts' worth -- that keeps "A Chorus Line" forever young.