Thursday, 21 February 2013

Theatre review: A Chorus Line

My sister finally gets her Christmas present from me, in February. No, I'm not terribly neglectful (well I am but it's not relevant here,) she just wanted to wait until A Chorus Line opened, and I'm pretty sure she thought it was worth the wait. The (notorious flop) movie version was one of her favourite films growing up, and now the original musical returns to the West End, setting up shop at the Palladium. Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's shows takes us behind the scenes of a big Broadway production, reminding us that behind the big-name stars there's a chorus, often having to blend into the background but each a person with their own story to tell.

It's 1975 and the proto-Cowell director/choreographer Zach (John Partridge) is casting the chorus for a 1930s-style musical. He's down to the final 16, and before sending half of them home he decides to eschew testing their dance skills in favour of an impromptu therapy session, getting each auditionee to describe what led them to a thankless career upstage.

With the show taking place in sort-of real time, Michael Bennett, Bob Avian and Baayork Lee's production plays straight through with no interval, which gets a bit tiring but is probably the best way to keep up the tension of the audition. With so many characters trying to get their moment in two hours, there's not really much time for development. It's particularly obvious, despite an emotional performance from Scarlett Strallen, in the subplot where her Cassie is an ex of Zach's, and a former rising star who never quite rose as high as expected. Zach objects to her demeaning herself by trying for a chorus job, but though Cassie's story of the people the industry forgets is an important part of the show, her history with the director feels a bit tacked-on and never really gets us anywhere.

A few of the cast do get the chance to stand out more though; Leigh Zimmerman is Amazonian as Sheila, who's fighting on despite her age starting to put casting directors off, and on the other end of the scale the diminutive Harry Francis pulls off the innocence of Mark who, in "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" tells of how he mistook an orgasm for gonorrhea and promptly confessed to his priest. Simon Hardwick and Frances Dee are the sweet married couple with the comic number "Sing!" while Rebecca Herszenhorn gets another memorable song, "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," which of course is better known as "Tits and Ass." Meanwhile noted Flashclomper Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, still speaking and singing out of her nose but at least she's dispensed with the "huh?"s at the end of every sentence.

Ironically the best-known song from A Chorus Line is "One," the pastiche-y number from the play-within-a-play, but there's other good ones along the way. There's quite a few patches where the action sags a bit, too, but overall this has worn pretty well over the last few decades. Penny was certainly beaming every time I looked over to her, so it obviously lived up to her expectations (plus she liked the look of Alastair Postlethwaite as assistant choreographer Larry.) The people who brought their kids along as a half-term treat probably found it a bit less family-friendly than they expected (Tits! Ass! Fuck! Gonorrhea! It's like Father Jack: The Musical) so it might find it tricky to fill the Palladium but it remains an enjoyably self-referential show with a decent amount of memorable tunes.

A Chorus Line by Marvin Hamlisch, Edward Kleban, James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante is booking until the 21st of December (really? optimistic) at the London Palladium.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes straight through.

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