(Nikki Snelson as Cassie and Michael Gruber as fashion victim Zach)
For any group of performers, there are few more surefire ways to guarantee receiving audience applause than breaking into a high-kick dance line. Audiences always clap and scream, like Pavlov’s mutts, whenever three or more humans lift their legs at roughly the same time in a linear formation. Indeed, if in the middle of Death of a Salesman, Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy suddenly linked arms and executed a kick line, the audience would probably ignore the rather curious plot turn and applaud wildly.
The reason for this odd reaction is probably buried somewhere in the warp and weft of our lizard brain, but its power has been used to great effect for the past three decades in A Chorus Line. This play, a musical excursion into the psyches and hamstrings of a group of twenty-some dancers auditioning for eight places in a chorus line, has always benefited from the raw emotions of the individuals involved. But in this production at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre, the emotions feel soft-boiled, yielding a mushy interpretation of what should be a galvanizing, goose-bumpy show.
Created by Michael Bennett, who choreographed and directed the original production, the book and songs were based on interviews with real dancers who endured the punishing ritual of dance auditions. As the tension develops between captivating personal stories off stage and the need for mindless synchronicity on stage, the show can often soar beyond some of the pop-predictable music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban.
However in this touring presentation, directed by Bob Avian, there is little immediacy in the acting or the dancing. Even though the director Zach (a fairly robotic Michael Gruber who is costumed in a tragic football field hash-mark sweater) pokes and prods the dancers to reveal truths about themselves, these actors respond with the detached air of people discussing the life situation of a close friend rather than themselves.
This difficulty is encapsulated in Paul, who tells a gut-wrenching story about growing up gay and then being observed dancing in a drag show by his parents. Kevin Santos never digs believably into his character, ticking off Paul’s sad history like someone checking off items on a shopping list, and then dissolving into plastic tears at the conclusion.
And in the signature role of Cassie, the former lover of Zach and a woman who had achieved individual stardom before falling on hard times, Nikki Snelson is mostly forgettable. Telegraphing her emotions instead of experiencing them, she never captures the complicated motivations of this dancer who sees her career coming full circle. And her supposedly show-stopping solo dance, “The Music and the Mirror,” feels only like a promising recital performance.
The comical song “Sing!” is burdened by a Kristine (Jessica Latshaw) and Al (Colt Prattes) who try a bit too hard to exude the vibe of lovers and who don’t quite master the fast-paced snap required by their duet. Even the sure-fire tits & ass song, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” seems surprisingly boring in the hands of this Val (Natalie Elise Hall).
There are a few glimmering bright spots. Clyde Alves is an energetic Mike in “I Can Do That.” And as coldly sardonic Shiela, Emily Fletcher breaks off some brittle comebacks, even though the more vulnerable subtext of the character is largely missing.
In a show that pays tribute to the hardworking people who submerge their personalities and individual dreams to operate in perfect unison, there is precious little personality in this Chorus Line. And that ain’t much of a kick for the audience.
A Chorus Line
Through October 26 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhoouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,