MTH’s “A Chorus Line” is Dazzlingly Alive and Kicking

The cast of “A Chorus Line.” (Photo by Cory Weaver.)

One night in 1974, the late, great director/choreographer Michael Bennett gathered a group of out-of-work Broadway dancers to talk on the record about their hopes and hardships, and their very particular passion, with the idea that it could become a show. What happened next was a singular sensation: nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, more performances than any previous Broadway show, a new standard for the blockbuster musical. A Chorus Line is rightly acclaimed as a modern dance masterpiece, fueled by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s lush and pulsing score—but its beating heart is still that candid conversation.

Nearly 50 years later, Music Theater Heritage honors that truth in a new production that captures the full force of the phenomenon, yet also feels remarkably intimate. Under the direction of Tim Scott, a dynamic cast of 18 of the region’s most talented young dancers and singers, backed by a seven-musician ensemble, radiates more than enough energy to fill Crown Center’s voluminous Grand Theater. The spectacle seems to spill out into the audience (thanks in part to a thrust stage) and, especially in the quieter moments, the fourth wall disappears.

With the house lights still full, the cast wanders onstage in ones and twos, stretching and chitchatting. Without fanfare, a stern-faced director arrives, asks for our cooperation, and from the opening groove of “I Hope I Get It,” we are all part of a chorus callback for an unspecified Broadway show. The real drama begins when the director instructs his desperate auditioners to (literally) toe the line, and compels each to step forward and share uncomfortable details of their private lives (yes, in 2023, the very premise would probably be investigated as workplace harassment).

Inspired by (and often directly quoting) the transcripts from that late-night colloquy, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book introduces us to a delightfully diverse range of characters. Monologues about childhood morph into individual song-and-dance numbers about adolescence and then a whirlwind, four-part “Montage” that comprises the balance of Act One—one of the most sensational sequences in musical theater.

Nathan Darrow and the cast of “A Chorus Line.” (Photo by Cory Weaver.)

Nathan Darrow, known for his TV turns in House of Cards, Billions, and beyond, makes his first return to a KC stage since headlining Hamlet for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in 2017. Here, he plays the director, Zach, with an austerity that masks a turbulence underneath; it finally bubbles up in a confrontation with Cassie, formerly a featured dancer and Zach’s domestic partner, who has returned to the chorus in need of a job—played and danced deftly by Julie Pope.

The entire ensemble is well cast in their roles. Standouts include Angel Z. Duong as the sassy Sheila, Cortez Emerson’s sky-high, pitch-perfect solo as Richie, and Maryann Traxler, as Val, whose interpretation of “Dance Ten, Looks Three” is perfect from front to back. But really, as Cassie tells Zach, “They are all special.”

Despite its timelessness, there’s a succinctly ’70s vibe to the show, and Scott smartly plays it as is, notwithstanding one or two unnecessarily updated lines. Kenny Personett’s choreography reflects the sharp angles and graceful ballet of Bennett’s original. Music Director Ty Tuttle likewise preserves the score’s funk without leaning too much into it. Arwen White’s costumes are also rather decade-neutral (no thick dance belts or legwarmers, but no flashy Lululemon, either), at least until the luminous finale.

The second act pumps the breaks a bit, showcasing more dramatic dialogue, as well as the best-known standalone standards. The climactic conversation about the fear and inevitability of life after dance starts to drag on…but all is forgiven with the first notes of “What I Did For Love,” rendered tenderly by Natalie Carrera and cast, capturing the show’s transcending theme in one penultimate song. As James Joyce once noted, “in the particular is contained the universal.”

So whether you are dancer yourself, or have never even been to a Broadway show, A Chorus Line has something to say to you—and MTH’s production wonderfully welcomes you into the conversation.

“A Chorus Line” runs through August 27 at Music Theater Heritage’s Grand Theater (formerly the American Heartland Theater) at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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