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STAGE REVIEW : Still Kicking

TIMES THEATER WRITER

There is an indestructible mystique that hangs like a shroud about Michael Bennett’s “A Chorus Line.” Aside from this show’s ultimate celebration of the Broadway gypsy, it has become its primary creator’s ultimate legacy. The two are inseparable. And thoughts of Bennett--of the magnitude of the loss suffered by the theater community in his premature death of AIDS in 1987--were the first to well up through the opening bars of the new Los Angeles production of “A Chorus Line” that opened Monday at the Las Palmas Theatre.

“A Chorus Line” has always been bittersweet and sentimental about its own. But the fact that it kicked off at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York on April 16, 1975, before moving to Broadway and running there undimmed for 15 years--an unprecedented 6,137 performances--surviving Bennett, book writer James Kirkwood and lyricist Edward Kleban, has made it elegiac.

It has become a tribute to all of Broadway’s late masters: Bennett, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion (who early in his career staged “Lend an Ear” at the Las Palmas, introducing the world to a then-newcomer named Carol Channing). Like it or not, the ghosts are in the room. They were all there Monday, augmenting the production with their reverberations.

For those who come to “A Chorus Line” without baggage from the past, this show is what it always was: A paean to those valiant, anonymous members of the chorus line, willing to endure the shortest careers in show business, working the hardest under severest stress, and to come out of it saying that “What I Did For Love” was worth it.

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Can there be anyone out there who doesn’t know the non-plot of “A Chorus Line”?

In that unlikely event, it is the sassy, defiant, sad, cocky, salubrious and remarkably sane individual stories of dancers Cassie (Janet Eilber) and Val (Suzanne Harrer) and Sheila (Lynn Rose) and Paul (Wayne Meledandri) and Mike (Lloyd Gordon) and Al (Michael Albert Simms) and Kristine (K. Dawn Owens) and Connie (Kim Ima) and Diana (Elise Hernandez) and others, auditioning for a brusque director/choreographer named Zach (Joseph Malone) who is asking rude questions: What made them become dancers? Who is the person behind the resume?

Simple as that. Yes, but terse, eloquent, funny and, underneath it all, ineffably wistful. “A Chorus Line” has become an icon--the national anthem of musicals. We’ve absorbed that serendipitous Marvin Hamlisch score through the pores and experienced that “one singular sensation” at the first utterance of “And a six, seven, eight. . . .”

All of this emotional programming is in the new Steve Bellin/Danny Taylor “Chorus Line” at the Las Palmas.

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And if at first the moves seemed a bit tentative Monday, and the orchestra timid, it soon gathered momentum. There is the underlying feeling that the company has not been together long enough to develop the polished ensemble this show demands, but given some staying power, those rough edges should smooth out.

The star turns are impressive, starting with Gordon’s gymnastic “I Can Do That,” moving right along to Simms’ and Owens’ comic duet, “Sing!,” and coming to a compelling stop at “Nothing” by the vocally strong Hernandez and at Harrer’s rousing and saucy “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.”

Yet of all the actor/dancers, it is Meledandri as Paul (a role he also played on Broadway) who delivers the most accomplished performance. He has a fluid grace, eloquently matched by the dignity of his tortured confessional. In this regard, Malone’s aphoristic Zach is forceful counterpoint--a driving voice calling out orders from the back of the room, but capable of subtle inflections between lines.

This is especially true in the confrontational scenes with Cassie, the former girlfriend who left him without explanation. Hers is a role that has always seemed a set-up impossible to live up to. Eilber doesn’t avoid its pitfalls, delivering a dance that’s more stressed and choppy than smooth.

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As always, it is Sheila, the cynical “adult” of the bunch, who dishes out the best lines, and Rose makes up for a weak singing voice with a languorous skill for displaying her willowy frame and raising other people’s eyebrows.

The set by Gimmicks, Unlimited, faithfully re-creates the bare stage and mirrored periaktoi of the original, and the costumes imitate Theoni V. Aldredge’s original ones. Dramaturgically, the weakest scene is still the spoken one that precedes “What I Did For Love,” which remains a helluva lead-in to the soaring finale: “One.”

“A Chorus Line” is in a class by itself, uniquely conceived and created. And this new production delivers its full emotional punch, if not always the full physical prowess to match it.

1642 N. Las Palmas Blvd. in Hollywood, Wednesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Indefinitely. $30-$35; (213) 480-3232 or (714) 740-2000.

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