Photo by Charr Crail.
—by Jeff Hudson
Sacramento’s venerable Music Circus—which has been staging familiar musicals for 64 years—launched this year’s summer series with a one-week run of A Chorus Line on Tuesday, June 24.
The show, which will mark the 40th anniversary of its Broadway premiere next year, is very familiar to anyone who paid attention to musical theater in the late 1970s. The show picked up the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (not often given to a musical) plus a raft of Tonys, and it enjoyed what was, at the time, the longest Broadway run in history.
But that was decades ago. The 1985 movie version was a dud; the show’s composer, Marvin Hamlisch, never penned another theatrical hit. Younger audiences nowadays are aware of the show, but not necessarily familiar with it. I attended this performance with a high school student (a devotee of musicals) who was seeing it performed for the first time.
The traditional proscenium mounting of A Chorus Line typically involves scenes with the large cast standing in a line facing the audience, spreading from left to right across the stage, with actors stepping forward when they speak. The Music Circus, however, stages shows in-the-round, so these big group scenes—and this is very much an ensemble show, with a large, limber cast of 26 professional dancers from around the country—become more a matter of “circle time,” with dancers stepping into the center to speak. This sets up something of a different vibe.
And when the cast is moving and speaking (or singing) at the same time, the Music Circus sound system complicates things. The actor you’re hearing may be standing in an aisle amidst the audience, but the sound of that actor’s voice emerges from the speakers above the circular stage. Lighting cues help point the viewer’s attention to the right location, but it still gets a little disorienting.
The comparatively small, round stage also presents an interesting challenge for choreographer Randy Slovacek, particularly in the big dance numbers that open and close the show. But Slovacek gets the big scenes going (albeit elbow to elbow). The show also takes advantage of the stage’s technical capacities: Sections can be elevated or dropped, and the whole thing can turn gracefully.
Stafford Arima—who has directed several Music Circus shows over the past decade, and is one of the best guests in the Music Circus stable—does an effective job managing the wispy story, which involves nervous dancers going through auditions for a new show, determined to win a part, and keenly aware that only a few of those auditioning will be cast. There are numerous soliloquies and occasionally dialogs, many of them involving a performer recalling what motivated them to start dancing as a child or as a teen. Others fret about their bodies (too tall, too short, too heavy), their sexuality, etc. The scene at the end, in which the performers muse on what their lives will be like when they can no longer dance on stage, is touching.
But while this production does a number of things well, its strong points don’t collectively tally up into a show that will create the kind of fond memories that Arima’s past Music Circus productions of Ragtime or A Little Night Music left in their wake. And that may have to do with the material itself; A Chorus Line is very much a musical of its era, but if you didn’t live through the ’70s and you don’t identify with that era as “home,” this material isn’t necessarily going to draw you in and put you in touch with what the characters are feeling. It’s long on virtuosic dancing, but sometimes a bit short on soul.