It’s something of a paradox that Encores! productions are often most successful when they are not the forgotten gems that constitute the foundation of their programming, but beloved, recognizable properties that allow actors and audiences a chance to revisit an old friend. It’s partly due to the quality of the material – it makes sense that a well-known musical will often have a stronger book and score than something that is frequently overlooked. It’s also a result of the artists’ work – the actors, directors, choreographers, and musicians who relish the opportunity to bring a musical they care about to life. All of these things are true of the shimmering Encores! revival of A Chorus Line.
A record-shattering hit in its original 1975 production, A Chorus Line does not immediately scream Encores! fare, but it’s a blast to see it again. The last New York production, in 2006, featured the same creative team as this production: direction by Bob Avian, choreography by Baayork Lee. Both were involved with the original production and are the official keepers of A Chorus Line. What’s remarkable about the work that Avian and Lee do is that although they remain rigidly faithful to Michael Bennett’s original staging, there is life and vitality in the acting and choreography. It doesn’t feel like a tired imitation of something from bygone years, but something newly formed.
That stems from astute casting. The 2006 production’s search for its company was captured in the documentary Every Little Step, and it’s throat-clutchingly intense as both the actors and the creative team throw every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears they have into the audition process. I thought about that documentary as the 2018 cast stepped forward with their pictures and resumes – Avian and Lee vetted each and every member of the line and they passed the test, not unlike the way the Bennett stand-in, Zach, susses out his cast in the show.
Max Clayton, stalwart stand-out of many Broadway ensembles, is here given the chance to monologue and to sing – in a croony baritone – on his own, showing a depth of talent he has not been afforded the opportunity to express before. Leigh Zimmerman is commanding as the line’s oldest dancer, Sheila, and she nails the character’s many iconic jokes. Her voice strains for the upper notes of “At the Ballet”, but her lower register is a shadowy pleasure.
Robyn Hurder leads the hopeful dancers as Cassie, in her iconic red Theoni V. Aldredge costume. Hurder’s “The Music and the Mirror” encapsulates Cassie’s fear with her inescapable need to do what she loves. Her body is a vessel of desperation, of shattered ego, of the strength needed to continue. Hurder’s singing is powerful and her dialogue with Zach (Tony Yazbeck) before and after the song aches with years of unsaid business. Yazbeck appeared in the 2006 revival as Al and has since established himself as Broadway’s most talented male triple threat. It’s a thrill to see Zach join in the dances, mostly because Yazbeck is a colossal talent, but also because Zach – allegedly a genius choreographer – often stands at the side and lets his assistant Larry (Ryan Steele) do all the dancing.
The role of Zach has not aged well, though, and Yazbeck seems lost in how to humanize the disembodied voice that constitutes most of his stage time. Yazbeck’s Zach is brusque and occasionally cruel. There’s some light slut-shaming, there’s some destructive criticism, and there are some boundary-crossing questions that would not fly in a job interview today. The insensitivity that Zach presents is hard to swallow and his turnaround at the end is not impactful enough in this production to excuse his prior behavior.
A Chorus Line is successful because, in its specificity about a group of dancers expressing their passion for what they do, it becomes about the passions in all of us – all of the things we do for love, to paraphrase the show’s 11 o’clock number. Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s score reaches the central heart of what makes the characters tick and coupled with Bennett’s exuberant choreography, they are unstoppable pieces of theatrical magic. That’s also why Avian and Lee’s restaging works so well. They don’t mess with something rock solid, they just fill it with life again and let it leap out.