Depression-era fantasy

The San Pedro Playhouse opens its main stage season with the hardy perennial A Chorus Line, one of the few American musicals to challenge the British-dominated Broadway scene of the late ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, even as Manhattan was inundated with prowling cats and plummeting chandeliers, we New Worlders could point to A Chorus Line and exclaim: “But we’ve got a Method-inspired sociology experiment with no scenery! Take that, Rum Tug Tugger!”

Of course, A Chorus Line is now such an integral part of the American imagination that we’ve a hard time recalling just how radical it must have seemed at its premiere: choreographer-director Michael Bennett and writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante culled interviews from the lowliest of stage performers and transformed their stories into a serious, but still highly entertaining, examination of the American Dream. The evening thus blends a naturalistic scenario — a gaggle of hoofers auditioning for a chorus — with a confessional format, as stage director Zach (here played extra-creepily by Mark McCarver) interrogates dancers about the choices that have landed them both in desperate straits and skintight leotards. There’s nothing like the current recession to make the opening plea of “God, I need this job!” seem especially urgent: what, indeed, would any of us do for the love of art, in the face of such dire economic realities?

Now, dance has often been the Playhouse’s Achilles’ heel (so to speak), and while A Chorus Line’s dancing doesn’t live up to the potential and precision of last year’s Altar Boyz, it’s a step — well, more like a step-kick-step — in the right direction. As with Altar Boyz, Christopher Rodriguez doubles as choreographer-director, though this time he includes plenty of Bennett-inspired flourishes, including rotating mirrors and the iconic final tableau. (Though the mammoth cast still varies in dancing talent, Rodriguez’ vigorous recruitment effort has clearly paid off.) At 130 intermission-less minutes, Rodriguez’s Chorus has, it must be said, a few longueurs: it could use a brisker tempo, particularly in the “At the Ballet” sequence and during a long-ish exchange between Zach and his former flame, Cassie. But mostly, this production tip-toed, then tip-tapped, its way into my often unfeeling, granite heart.

With a brilliant score and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line is cannily constructed to give individual performers a chance to shine. Especially strong in that regard are Walter Songer’s “I Can Do That” — an alpha-male ode to twinkly-toed bliss — and the delightfully screwball “Sing,” agreeably performed by Michael J. Gonzalez and Jennifer Baldwin. Kate Miller gets to strut her, um, stuff in the entertaining burlesque “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” otherwise known to the rest of the planet as “Tits and Ass.” (This little anatomy lesson actually forced the couple in front of me to flee the premises. Ah, the joys of San Antonio theatre: offending its patrons one Pulitzer winner at a time.) Though Eric Mota doesn’t get a full solo per se, he’s obviously a dynamite singer and dancer; he also doubles as the production’s dance captain.

Sexuality plays a large role in the revelations of the evening; we’re shocked to discover, for instance, that some of the chorus boys aren’t gay. But nobody handles that particular aspect of the evening with more skill than Isidro Medina, who puts over Paul’s central, tortured monologue with grace. As Cassie, Paige Blend Hansel takes the stage for the solo dance “The Music and the Mirror”; if Hansel’s turn seems to lack a certain Dionysian abandon, it still showcases her considerable technical gifts.

I’d wager that the last ten minutes of A Chorus Line are still the best of any American musical: in the Playhouse production, there are a few sour notes in “What I Did For Love” (it needs a literal tune-up, I’m afraid), but the final reprise of “One” really can’t miss. This number features American dramatic irony at its sharpest: a Depression-era fantasy in which everyone is hale and healthy, all the clothing glitters with gold, and even the dispossessed celebrate the charisma of a chosen one.

And why not? At least for a few exhilarating minutes, we’re swept into a world of high kicks and even higher spirits, and forget, like the chorus, the finale’s more probable real-life counterpart: An Unemployment Line. •

Chorus Line
Through Oct 17
$15 - $25
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W Ashby


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