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'A Chorus Line'

A Review and Interview

by Toba Singer

August 2, 2006 -- Curran Theater, San Francisco, CA

“A Chorus Line” opened its one-stop pre-Broadway tour at San Francisco’s Curran Theater on August 2, 2006. Just minutes after the curtain, a 4.4 earthquake struck 40 miles north of the city. The audience felt – nothing – as jazz-thighed dancers step-kick-kick-touched their way through the first number, “I Hope I Get It.”

The show is a classic: a Broadway love letter to dance chorines that has written elegy, alongside caveats and insider humor, into its book and lyrics. For me personally, it is hard to remain dry-eyed during the number “Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet.” With the opening bars comes a rush of nostalgia for the smell of the pre-Marley era sweat- infused-oak-floored studios. Then the words “Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to the voice like a metronome...It wasn't paradise, it wasn’t paradise, it wasn’t paradise, but it was home” puncture the smarmier sentiments.

Other personal recollections are bidden by the song “Nothing.” The back story to the song was the threat by Priscilla Lopez’s first year acting teacher, Laurence Olvin, to expel her from New York’s School of Performing Arts for failing to have put all her chips on the one number of the Stanislavsky Method, a school of acting favored and used exclusively to train P.A.'s Drama majors. [The Stanislavsky Method relies on the willingness of the actor to completely identify with and transform him or herself into the character, as opposed to delivering an imitative or mimetic rendering. For the purposes of character development, enhancement and enrichment, actors are encouraged to use such devices as improvisation of animals or random objects suggested by their reading of the character's scripted personality, such as roosters, llamas, toboggans or ice cream cones, to capture and deploy the "sense memory" of the improvisory element to help recreate the character onstage.]

In an act of noblesse obligé, Olvin decided to let Priscilla stay. He then died during the school’s summer vacation.

The irony was not lost on her, and it was used in the show as a coda for the song: She sings that when she returns to school and learns that he has died, she cries, not tears of grief, but because his death leaves her feeling "nothing." The school that existed for the very purpose of eliciting the deepest of feelings from its acting students succeeded, in her case, in achieving the opposite result.

I too was considered a failure at improvisation during the early part of my first year there. One morning in 1963, Priscilla and I commiserated in the first floor girls’ bathroom. She shared with me Olvin’s assurance that out of pity, he was not going to expel her. His reason: The school she would have had to transfer to was Brooklyn’s fearsome Girls’ High. My teacher, Ruthel Provet, I chimed in, would also recommend that I remain, not because she thought I was a worthy actress, but in deference to what she experienced as my very “sweet” personality. I vowed to challenge what I regarded as Provet’s summary judgment on both counts. Priscilla and I more than managed to pull the fat out of the fire by our senior year when, based on our different strengths, we joined the short list of our teacher, actress/director Vinnette Carroll’s favorite students.

Two thousand students auditioned for the school’s three departments. Of them, 200 were admitted. A little less than half of the freshman class was thrown out for artistic underachievement, as well as suspected homosexual tendencies, fraudulent New York City home addresses, fashion gaffes, and pregnancy. Of the 200, 120 graduated. Priscilla, a talented “triple threat” actress-singer-dancer, launched a career on the entrails of her story, leaving many of her classmates deeply gratified by its inherent irony, redolent of poetic justice. For me, it was the beginning of a conscientious effort to acquire personality defects, laboring under the adolescent self deception that if I had them, nobody in authority would be able to patronize me in quite the same way ever again. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but as soon as I began cultivating them, my acting efforts received recognition. It was Priscilla who introduced me to the slow and very balky elevator that carried us to Phil Black’s jazz studio on Broadway, and for me, “A Chorus Line” will always be about her, about us, and not Michael Bennett’s morbid fixation on Donna McKechnie.

1700 dancers auditioned for the 29 contracts offered by this iteration of what was once the longest-running show on Broadway. Like the original Broadway cast, this one spent a day trading the war stories they accumulated during their short lives as dancers, and even shorter pre-dance lives. The book was not updated to reflect them, so much as it was redacted to infuse current-day lexicon into those of their predecessors.

The women are all jazz virtuosos and good actors. Most have rich, modulated, but powerful voices. The men are pretty good dancers; but not all were especially creative or energetic actors and singers. Some might have even benefited from a short introduction to the Stanislavsky Method. Outstanding were Chryssie Whitehead as Kristine, Deirdre Goodwin as Sheila, Natalie Cortez as Diana, Yuka Takara as Connie, Ken Alan as Greg, Jessica Lee Goldyn as Val, Jeffrey Schecter as Mike, Michael Berresse as Zach, and Brad Anderson as Don. Charlotte D’Amboise was a daunting Cassie, valiantly and volubly carrying on in spite of the harsh contradictions of her bruised life, and the talent she was forced to suppress in deference to the show and the tunnel vision-driven ego of its director, Zach, her former lover. Who hasn’t danced on a stage raked by those angles?

Updates to the book made the dialogue feel richer, if lengthier. When Sheila (clearly a frontrunner) is eliminated and you are puzzled as to why, you realize that it was going to be either her or Cassie, and it was Cassie because of something in the director’s head that no dancer onstage can touch, influence, or change. It occurs to you that this may be the first completely honest Broadway musical since “The Threepenny Opera.” “Rent” and “Urinetown,” while “noir”-ish, are fakes by comparison.

Broadway is ready for another Chorus Line, and so why not this one? I’d say that before it travels there, it might benefit from a few Method improvs led by Priscilla Lopez.

*********************************

If you were looking for examples of the four temperaments (or humours) among Chorus Line characters, Kristine’s could be said to be the most sanguine and least bitter.  In the show, she arrives at the audition with her husband, who is also hoping to get hired, and as she leans on him, he supports her while she offers up too much information about her one defect.  She feels compelled to tell the audition panel for a musical theatre production that she can do anything but sing.  The song, which she sing/talks until she attempts but fails to hit the highest note on the word “Sing” is clever, difficult, and mostly unforgettable in how it fully reveals the disarming personality and character of Kristine. 

Actress/dancer/singer, Chryssie Whitehead plays the role jubilantly, and I had an opportunity to interview her on August 30, just a few days away from the show’s Broadway opening.

Toba Singer:  Where are you from, and where did you begin your dance training?

Chryssie Whitehead:  I’m originally from Columbia, South Carolina.  I attended a little jazz studio called Carolina Dance Centre, and then studied at and danced with Columbia City Ballet.  When I was 12, I joined Southern Strutt.  I would attend dance conventions throughout the school year where there were auditions for scholarships to train in New York and Los Angeles for L.A. Dance Magic, West Coast Dance Explosion, Tremaine, and New York Dance Alliance.  I also went to Edge Performing Arts Center, and in New York, I took class at Steps and Broadway Dance Center.

If instead of playing Kristine, you were playing yourself in “A Chorus Line,” what would your story be?

I think about that all the time.  My audition story would be that I started to get very serious about acting after high school.  I went to New York and joined the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.  Then I decided to audition for AMDA because I was determined to go for that “triple threat” thing: to be able to dance, sing and act.  Many opportunities came my way.  I played the role of Grace on the TV show, “Boston Public,” and was Julia Stiles’ dance double in the scene in “Save the Last Dance” where her character auditions for Juilliard and is accepted.  I moved to L.A. while on tour with “Fosse,” and found an incredible acting teacher there, Gregory Berger. I’m in a film that was shot in Chicago, called “Riff Raff” that is coming out soon. 

Broadway was a dream of mine since I was 12, but as I got older, I wanted to speak with words and voice, not just with my body.  I thought, “I’m just going to wait and see” because [when I went to Broadway] I wanted a real role, and so I worked very hard on my voice while I studied acting with Greg.  I’ve always wanted to do “A Chorus Line,” and actually performed in it when I was 14 in community theater.  When I got the sides for the role of Kristine, I realized that I’d never found anything so perfect for me as this role.  I just fell in love with her. She and I have a lot in common and a few differences.  She’s a little crazier than I am: I’m calmer, but I’m very outgoing like she is.  I’m just so grateful that they saw me as her.  At the time that I got the job, I was teaching at AMDA and was happy that I could be a role model for my students.  It doesn’t all happen right away.  You have to do the work, believe in yourself, and keep going at it.

Is that the real “Triple Threat”: doing the work, believing in yourself and going at it?

Yes!  Plus you have to love it because you are going to hear a lot of “Thank you very much, but no” in the course of a career.

Jazz auditions are notorious for being cattle calls, especially in L.A., where 500 dancers will show up for eight roles.  How do you approach an audition, in terms of preparation, ritual, and attitude?

I love auditioning.  That’s my thing.  I love it.  It’s a chance to go in and say, “OK, this is my chance to do the part for a minute, feel like I’ve got the job for one second.”  I make sure I’m well rested, have had a little something to eat, arrive 20 minutes ahead of time to make sure I’m warm, have my makeup ready to go, hair, everything, and look like the package—it’s a business.  You find talented dancers who still need to learn how to carry themselves, walk into a room, remain present.  A lot of people don’t want to do that.  In New York, you can just get away with a leotard or a unitard, but in L.A., it’s all about what you’re wearing.  For me, it’s all about preparation.  I want it, I’ve trained, I’m up for something new.  It’s a free class, where you’re learning something new, new combinations, somebody’s choreography that’s different.  Nobody dances like anyone but themselves and I’m the only one out there who can prove that I can bring something to this. 

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