It was New York’s must-have ticket, its audiences studded with celebrities crushed in among folks deliriously happy to have landed a seat. Soon it accumulated nine Tonys and a Pulitzer and was hailed as a game-changer that had reenergized musical theater.
In many ways, the whirlwind caused by “A Chorus Line” in 1975 resembles the one swirling around “Hamilton” today.
Forty-one years later, the musical remains a revelation as the Chance Theater in Anaheim presents it in a staging that evokes enough of the Michael Bennett original to satisfy those longing to reconnect with an old friend and enough new ideas to tantalize those looking to be surprised.
The latter is expected of Oanh Nguyen, whose bold rethinking of musicals includes 2012’s combustible “West Side Story” at the Chance, where he is artistic director.
Here, he masterfully shapes the psychological realm. “A Chorus Line” was built from interviews with Broadway dancers. As we eavesdrop on a group of them auditioning for an exacting, Bennett-like director-choreographer, we also witness what’s racing through their minds. Lighting, superbly designed by Martha Carter, denotes the transitions. Whenever the action turns inward, the lights shift from the bright, flat, naturalistic illumination of the audition to the dimension and color of the mind.
From time to time, the lighting also reveals a fascinating detail: The auditionees sent packing after the first cut have remained in spirit, watching from an other-dimensional realm at the sides of the stage. This is still their story, after all, and Nguyen gives them a chance to remain part of it.
Music director Ryan O’Connell is always visible at the rehearsal piano at the side of the stage, but in another neat lighting trick, the other four musicians are revealed now and again as a fantasy band.
Hazel Clarke’s choreography evokes Bennett’s original work — sharp and angular yet fluidly expressive — while going its own way. Bradley Lock’s rehearsal-casual costumes and Fred Kinney’s mirrored set similarly nod to the originals.
Many of the dancers are a bit young for their roles — several still attend area colleges — and their movement and vocal skills aren’t always the equal of the Broadway talent they’re portraying.
Their emotional honesty, however, is rousing. Among the audience’s favorites: Xavier Castaneda as nervous but quietly courageous Paul; Angeline Mirenda as spirited, sensitive Diana; Camryn Zelinger as sly, dauntless Sheila; Ben Heustess as poised, rapier-witted Bobby; Tatiana Alvarez as riveting Cassie; and Calvin Brady as precise choreographer’s assistant Larry.
“A Chorus Line” remains vital because it encapsulates not just dancers’ lives, but all lives — full of frustration, dreams and the elemental desire to be seen and heard.
In a particularly beautiful moment, Cassie and the Bennett stand-in, caught up in a momentary drama at the front of the stage, fade into silhouette as they turn to face the bigger story just beyond them: the auditionees, now a tight-knit unit, dancing in all their hopeful, hard-working, resilient glory.
“A Chorus Line”
Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 31.
Info: (888) 455-4212 or www.ChanceTheater.com
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes