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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
A CHORUS LINE
at the London Palladium

FAMILIAR TUNE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Ph: Manuel Harlan

I’m repeatedly asked what I consider to be the last great Broadway musical, something that’s up there with Showboat, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Gypsy and Carousel. I invariably say A Chorus Line.

I first saw it at the Shubert Theatre in New York in 1975, and the impact it made on me remains, to this day, indelibly etched in my memory. I consider it to be one of the greatest experiences in a lifetime of theatre going.

The original London production at Drury Lane impressed me less due to the fact that its cast wasn’t nearly as good as the one originally assembled by the show’s creator, director and choreographer Michael Bennett. The dancing – a key element in the show – lacked the precision and energy of the original, and instead of electrifying us, the London cast merely went through the motions. Could this, I wondered, be the same show that blew me away just a couple of years earlier? Had I been guilty of wildly over-estimating its qualities?

A recent revival in New York was tepidly received, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached this same revival at the London Palladium.

My fears were groundless, and although, hand on heart, I cannot claim that it reaches the extraordinary heights of the Broadway original, it’s good enough to reinforce my belief that A Chorus Line remains a pantheon achievement in musical theatre.

Director Bob Avian, who worked closely with Bennett on shaping the material, and Baayork Lee have lovingly and faithfully recreated their landmark production. There have been no attempts to update it from 1975 to the present so that what we’re seeing is, in essence, a period piece. How, I wondered, would this impact the visceral immediacy of the original? How much will it have dated?

For starters, today’s crop of musicals has all but done away with the chorus line. They’re old-fashioned and out of kilter in contemporary song-and-dance shows. You’ll find them only in revivals of older musicals. Also, several of the individual stories told by the 17 hopefuls auditioning for the eight available places in an unnamed musical have been told many times over in films and current TV series like Smash and Glee.

Paul’s story, for example, is typical. He’s gay, and surely the trauma of having his parents discover that he works in a drag show must have less impact in 2013 than it did in 1975? Not so. As played by the excellent Gary Wood, it’s just as moving as it was when I first saw it. Indeed, the man sitting next to me sobbed audibly throughout it.

With the passing of time, style has, on this occasion, become more important than content, and with a couple of exceptions this contemporary cast is terrific. Especially good is Leigh Zimmerman as the over-confident Sheila, a girl with more attitude than talent; John Partridge as Zach, the show’s seen-and-heard-it-all-before choreographer; Summer Strallen as Cassie, with whom Zach once had an affair and now considers too old and too talented to be in the chorus; and Adam Salter as Mike, who does some of the best work of the evening in his athletic show-off number, "I Can Do That."

Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s score remains catchy and witty, climaxing in the spectacular "One," a tour de force finale and the kind of breathtaking routine that regularly turned the Broadway musical during its golden age into a great art form.

With the possible exception of Stephen Sondheim, there are no giant musical talents of the calibre of Bennett working on either side of the Atlantic anymore, which makes Avian’s fidelity to Bennett’s original staging – in the strikingly simple but brilliant set by Robin Wagner – something to cherish.

The fluidity of line Bennett created, and his seamless melding of bodies into striking visual patterns throughout the show’s two-hour (no intermission) running time, is positively awesome in its inventiveness and originality and serves as a sad reminder of just how much musical theatre has declined in the last 15 years. Quite simply, we will never see its like again.

 


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