"A Chorus Line," Curran Theater, San Francisco, August 2, 2006.
“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 an onrush 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 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, tobaggans 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 oblige, 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, fraudulant 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.