“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…again!”
When I was learning to play the piano as a young’un, we had a book of tunes from the movies which included ‘One’ and ‘What I Did For Love’, both from A Chorus Line. I’d never seen the film (and still have not) but I loved both of those songs and so practiced hard to be able to play them well. But even when a new production of the show was announced earlier this year, the temptation to go and see it was never too strong. Part of that came from the venue – the Palladium is a most unforgiving of theatres if you don’t have a front centre stalls seat – but there was also a sense that its conglomeration of backstage stories might be a little dated in a world where the audition process has repeatedly been laid bare on our television screens.
I perhaps wasn’t alone in feeling this way as the production was forced into publishing early closing notices, meaning it shutters at the end of this week. But in forcing my hand and making me book via a bargainous deal that got us into the middle of Row C of the stalls, I belatedly came to realise that the show is much better than I thought it would be and perhaps deserves a longer life than it has had. Its set-up is simplicity itself – seventeen Broadway dancers audition for eight spots on the chorus line for a musical and as the director takes them through their paces, we get to hear the tales of these hopefuls, their dreams and aspirations, their fears and frailties, in some cases their most intimate stories about what dance and being a dancer means to them.
It’s a highly effective way of exploring the less-heralded side of being onstage in a Broadway show, each member of the ensemble gets their moment to shine (or otherwise) and James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book sensitively takes in a wide range of issues – the fear of ageing, the harsh reality of failing to become a star, the struggle to come out to family (either as a dancer or a homosexual, or both), the simultaneous necessity and impossibility to have a back-up plan. What the show really succeeds in doing is demonstrating that these people need to dance, have to dance, whatever their reasons and over the uninterrupted two hours, it is impossible not to get sucked into the intense drama of who will make the final cut.
In this final week, the cast seems somewhat depleted – two are on honeymoon, at least two have departed to start in the imminent UK tour of Cabaret – so I can’t be 100% of who exactly was playing who, especially with the men. But pleasingly, we had a full complement on the better-known female side – Scarlett Strallen scorches her way through an amazing dance solo as Cassie, the one who has given up on her Hollywood dream; Victoria Hamilton-Barritt crackles with fierce character as the determined Diana, stirring us all with an incandescent ‘What I Did For Love’; and Leigh Zimmerman justifies her Olivier win as the dryly wisecracking Sheila, fighting against the years for one last chance.
Gary Watson (I think) stood in excellently for John Partridge as Zach, the commanding director who demands his confessions from the rear of the theatre and Gary Wood is most moving indeed as the young Puerto Rican, still struggling with the way his family found out he was dancing in a drag show. But the individual stories also have a cumulative effect as the ensemble finally comes together in an ecstatic, glittering finale. Director Bob Avian’s fidelity to the choreography he co-created with Michael Bennett has a glorious impact, creating a singular sensation that I’m glad to got to experience before it was too late.