MOVIE REVIEW : 'CHORUS LINE' TRIPS ON SCREEN

Times Film Critic

"A Chorus Line" is here at last (selected theaters) and on its trip has gone from champagne to Champale.

If you were one of that legion who saw "A Chorus Line" more than once in the theater, the film is enough to make you doubt your judgment. If you've never seen the stage piece, you may come out wondering what in the name of goodness all the fuss was about 10 years ago (and even now, since it is still playing at the self-same Shubert Theatre in New York).

In this stately and fairly slavish representation, directed by Richard Attenborough, what pokes through with the pain of a broken bone is how thin the material really is. That was a secret well disguised by the exuberant theatricality of the original production, conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett and produced by Joseph Papp. And if we saw through it, we agreed to let ourselves be manipulated emotionally: It was, in effect, what we did for the love of the theater.

The distance from our theater seat to the stage was also Bennett's ally, as 16 auditioning singer-dancers confided snatches of autobiography to Zach, an omnipotent and unseen choreographer at the back of the theater. Such was Bennett's assurance that it hardly ever occurred to us to question just why the innermost secrets of their lives needed airing when they were simply going to be chorus members, good and true. A clean bill of health from their dentist or podiatrist might be more to the point.

But most of all, "A Chorus Line," performed without intermission, had an urgent coherence and its choreography was crisply elegant. Such is no longer the case. The film is virtually the same length as the play but it travels in fits and starts. Bennett's choreography has been all but erased.

In the famous final number, "One," you can see a hint of his style, but everything else has the stamp of Jeffrey Hornaday, who perpetrated the "Flashdance" vulgarities. Every chance we have at momentum or empathy is sabotaged by casting, by cutting away (even whacking off the dancers' feet) or, in one mysterious case, by a little trip the camera takes up to the blackness of the ceiling and back down again as a number is being performed.

To Attenborough's credit, he has not meandered out of the theater and into flashbacks in the lives of his desperate dancers. We don't see plain little girls becoming beautiful "At the Ballet," or go with a flat-chested one for a whole new set of equipment for "Dance, 10; Looks, 3" (the lady in question here may have stumbled into a half-price sale).

In Arnold Schulman's adaptation of the James Kirkwood-Nicholas Dante book for the show, we remain pretty much rooted in the Mark Hellinger Theatre, although we do roam upstairs and downstairs and even, in a moment of the purest irrelevance, follow Cassie (Alyson Reed) via helicopter shots as her taxicab speeds toward it.

The Cassie/Zach (Michael Douglas) love affair of the near-past has been built up. She is still his protege who has gone on to be his star and has then dared to reach for stardom "in a Hollywood musical." (In what, "Flashdance"? "Staying Alive"? Did no one tell her about "Hollywood musicals" during the past decade?) Now back, desperate for any job, her new number, "Let Me Dance for You," is interrupted by a look at their past lives together: Cassie rehearsing dejectedly, joined in an embrace by an equally morose Zach (I think it symbolizes a romance out of sync). Unfortunately, they are not the film's most charismatic couple. Some actors, most notably Roy Scheider in "All That Jazz," could move so that you believed them as dancers. Douglas looks like "glower, 10; dance, 0." Reed never has the pure line of white-hot intensity, in her singing or dancing, that would separate a star from a chorus girl.

In fact, in the charisma department, "A Chorus Line's" one real killer is Terrence Mann as Larry, Zach's assistant choreographer. Warm, authoritative, ugly-handsome, effortlessly real, with a sense of intelligence behind his acting and his dancing. He's the film's unalloyed delight.

Although a few of the 16 hopefuls suffer from a sort of glacial artificiality that nothing can thaw, many are just fine.

Some of the more outstanding are Yamil Borges as Morales, who in "Nothing" describes surviving with style a Method Acting class at the High School of Performing Arts; Charles McGowan, so good in the film's cartoon version of "I Can Do That" that you wish you could see his feet, or indeed his whole number, without interruption; Michelle Johnston as Bebe, who has come back to audition from a nervous breakdown; Gregg Burge, given a new all-stops-out number called "Surprise," and Cameron English, enormously moving as Paul, whose gayness is not the shocker it might have seemed 10 years ago. You can only feel for Nicole Fosse (child of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse), who must stand about pigeon-toed to indicate a pigeon-toedness of intellect.

They have mucked the numbers about, however, in a telling fashion. As one dancer is suddenly injured, Zach looks at the shocked faces of the other 15 and asks whatever they plan to do with themselves when they can no longer dance. It leads to Morales' moving delivery of "What I Did for Love."

Or it did.

The song has been transferred to Cassie, who delivers it like Marie Antoinette mounting the scaffold. "The gift was ours to borrow" referred to talent, and the painfully short time that gift is in any dancer's hands. Now it has been made flat-footedly literal: What Cassie did for the love of Zach, and it's indicative of the earnest, unsoaring, unimaginative conveyance that "A Chorus Line" has become.

'A CHORUS LINE' An Embassy Films Associates, Polygram Pictures presentation distributed by Columbia Pictures. Executive producer Gordon Stulberg. Producers Cy Feuer, Ernest H. Martin. Director Richard Attenborough. Screenplay Arnold Schulman, based on the stage play conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett. Book of the stage play by James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, a New York Shakespeare Festival Presentation produced on the stage by Joseph Papp. Music Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics Edward Kleban. Production design Patrizia von Brandenstein. Editor John Bloom. Camera Ronnie Taylor. Choreography Jeffrey Hornaday. Costumes Fay Poliakin. Sound mixer Chris Newman. Art director John Dapper; set decorator George DeTitta. With Michael Blevins, Yamil Borges, Jan Gan Boyd, Sharon Brown, Gregg Burge, Janet Jones, Michelle Johnston, Audrey Landers, Pam Klinger, Terrence Mann, Michael Douglas, Cameron English, Tony Fields, Nicole Fosse, Vicki Frederick, Charles McGowan, Alyson Reed, Justin Ross, Blane Savage, Matt West.

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned to give special guidance for attendance of children under 13).

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