FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – “The show was the ‘Hamilton’ of its day.” Thus Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts producing artistic director, gives his production of “A Chorus Line,” a reference point for today’s audience.
The show premiered in 1975 and ran for many years. However, the subject matter of the two shows could not be more different! “Hamilton” presents American history in modern rap-influenced musical sensibilities to a new generation, whereas “A Chorus Line” is a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a Broadway show, using 1970s Broadway-style music, sometimes with funk and soul embellishments, fused together by music master Marvin Hamlisch.
Perhaps what made “A Chorus Line” so unusual for its time is that, unlike classic Broadway shows and MGM movie musicals which romanticized Broadway, “A Chorus Line” presented the personal problems, stress and failures of seventeen talented dancers vying to be selected for eight positions for a Broadway show.
The performance that I saw at this Fredericksburg venue was a night in which several understudies acted significant parts: Mackenna Milbourn played Cassie, Sydney Kirkegaard performed as Shelia, Katherine Wright depicted Bebe and Colby LeRoy was Greg. They enacted these roles brilliantly, matching the standout performances by regulars Anthony Cosby (playing Ritchie) and J. Clayton Winters (Zach, the character with the unenviable task of whittling down the 17 talented dancers to eight).
In my view, the understudies performing these roles added additional meaning to the experience; the understudies, perhaps like the rejected characters in “A Chorus Line,” might well rival in talent those selected to be the primary stars, except for the vicissitudes of fate.
Zach, to finalize the selection of dancers in an unusual way. Unable to eliminate some chorus line members by talent alone, he has them narrate and perform vignettes about their lives. Many of these are harrowing experiences, especially those told by Paul (compellingly portrayed by understudy Thomas Delgado), whose character provides the most poignant moments in the show.
As for the singing and the music: “I Hope I Get It” provided the entire company singing brightly yet with in-character apprehension to a live band, which successfully channeled funk and soul modes of the 1970s. Kristine and Al (played by Bridget Lundberg and Jonathan HardIn) provided a charming duet as the married couple auditioning for the chorus line in the song “Sing,” in which Kristine laments she can dance but not sing. As the actress had to sing on key most of the time, it took a certain talent to sing deliberately off-key well. Indeed, it points to one of the challenges of “A Chorus Line:”
The routines are done with some dancers a bit off or out of sequence as they practice at first. At the end of the show, however, they must perform in perfect unison in the song’s iconic number, “One.” This is a brilliant show-stopping moment in the Riverside production: Heretofore the sets have been simple – the audience sees simply a low-key dance studio, with the auditioning chorus in comfortable clothes for practice. In the end, suddenly an Art Deco backdrop descends, and behind it, elegant curtains are spotlighted in many colors. The entire cast comes out dancing in perfect unison, in gold-glittery hats and jackets, dancing Rockette-style and in Busby Berkely geometrics.
Directly before this, Melinette Pallares gives a beautiful performance of “What I Did for Love,” arguably the second-best known song in the show.
Some very human moments including a conversation between the dancers about the value of what they are doing. Broadway is dying, exclaims one – there is no future in this career.
Other worries about mortgage and other payments and whether a career as a dancer from contract to contract can really sustain a living. Of course, there are other careers for dancers, such as teaching. One performer posits this memorable thought: “I don’t want to teach others to do what I should be doing!”
All the while, this production provides a faster pace towards the climax as we go from character to character and hear each one’s life story. After we know the characters as individuals, they are all uniform as one chorus: “One.”
A few words now about the venue: Riverside Center Dinner Theater is in Fredericksburg, Virginia, but the trip is worthwhile because of the quality of the show and a slightly different notion of dinner theatre. It is no buffet, but a sit-down restaurant in which cast members serve one.
It is remarkably spacious and housed in the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, which hosts conferences as well as provides dinner theatre entertainment. “A Chorus Line,” with its sexual themes and profanity in the interests of the realism of the drama, is not a family show. It runs through Sept. 16. Those undertaking a trip to the outstanding Riverside venue in Fredericksburg with family may enjoy “Beauty and the Beast” from late September through November and a Buddy-Holly-style “Rockabilly Christmas” in December.