UPDATE: The run has just been extended through Sept. 8.
With a fresh story angle and imaginative songs, “A Chorus Line” created one singular sensation on Broadway back in 1975. The musical, which chalked up a slew of Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, enjoyed a record-breaking 15-year run that would stand uncontested until some singing felines came along.
As an energetic, mostly persuasive revival at Olney Theatre Center reconfirms, the slice-of-theater-life scenario of the show still clicks, often affectingly. And it’s good to hear the colorful score by Marvin Hamlisch again, even if it sounds a little bittersweet now, given his untimely death at 68 one year ago this week.
Many an old Hollywood musical got mileage out of spinning a tale of aspiring hoofers with stardust in their eyes, and the conviction that a big break was sure to come their way, if only a director would notice them.
The creative team for “A Chorus Line” — Michael Bennett gets credit for the original concept; James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante wrote the book — came up with a way of enhancing that well-worn premise, focusing on a single, tense tryout for a large group of dancers.
Unfolding in real time, the audition moves from cattle call to group therapy after the initial bunch of participants gets whittled down to 17. Those left standing, all vying for eight ensemble slots in an unnamed project, are then given an unexpected test.
Zach, the forbidding, impatient director, wants to learn the beyond-the-resume, behind-the-8x10-glossy stuff about these potential hires. In the process, he draws out information that, were it in the Facebook era, would be accessible only to close friends, not acquaintances.
A lot of childhood memories, most of them embarrassing, get dragged up (the writers capture teen experiences and apprehensions with particular skill). But the reasons why these people want to dance also come to the fore, which, of course, is the point of Zach’s little scheme. And he makes them think hard about the fast-ticking clock that eats away at every dancer's career chances.
It’s gimmicky all right, but easy to buy into. And even as the musical gradually reconfirms that the goal of a great chorus line is unanimity, there’s the fascinating reminder that behind each identically bright smile and in-sync step is an individual capable of leaving a distinctive imprint.
Directed by Stephen Nachamie, who also recreated the original choreography, the Olney production could use fine-tuning in some of the dance routines, judging by the results opening night. It could also use a few more technically solid voices (shortcomings of timbre and pitch should only pop up in the humorous number about a tone-deaf character).
But the production has an entertaining lift and also achieves genuine emotional impact, thanks to glowing performances in the most prominent roles.
Michelle Aravena’s portrayal of Cassie, the chorister-turned-featured-player now forced to seek any job, reveals all the pride and hurt inside. The actress has the vocal chops to make the music register viscerally, and the dance moves needed to make her solo turn sizzle.
Bryan Knowlton gives a classy performance as Paul, the gay Puerto Rican who has the hardest time telling his story. That story threatens to turn mawkish with each turn, but Knowlton knows how to keep it all real and beautifully, poignantly nuanced.
The other standout is Jessica Vaccaro as Diana, the lively star-in-waiting who never got the hang of acting class (the funny song about that is delivered with terrific personality), but sure wants to dance. When she launches “What I Did for Love,” the show’s hit anthem about dedication to the art, Vaccaro lights up the whole place.
Notably colorful acting comes from Parker Drown (Bobby) and Colleen Hayes (Sheila). Jaimie Kelton (Maggie) lends a vibrant voice to the endearing “At the Ballet.”
As Zach, Carl Randolph sounds awfully stiff most of the time, rather like an old-time radio announcer, and his acting in the big where-did-our-love-go-wrong scene with Cassie is not much more convincing.
Jennifer Cordiner flounces amusingly as Val, but doesn’t quite nail the great song saluting silicone implants and plastic surgery (lyricist Edward Kleban is at his cleverest here). Kyle Schliefer’s lithe and nimble dancing as Mike hits the spot.
The score is played by a tight ensemble conducted by Ross Scott Rawlings. Andrew F. Griffin’s finely judged lighting adds considerable visual spark to the production (set by James Dardenne, costumes by Brad Musgrove).
All things considered, the Olney production succeeds at tapping into the heart of “A Chorus Line” and making the age-old dream of breaking into show business — any piece of it — seem as vital, frustrating and wonderful as ever.