`Chorus Line’ documentary high kicks to glory

Finally caught up with the outstanding documentary Every Little Step about casting the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line.

Though some Chorus Line purists balked at the revival, I was pretty fond of it, mostly because I got to cover its out-of-town tryout at the Curran Theatre here in San Francisco as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series in the early fall of 2006. (I also got to attend the cast album recording session at Skywalker Ranch.)

The best thing about the movie (produced and directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo), though, has nothing to do with the revival and everything to do with the creative process behind the original production. The original interview tapes Michael Bennett made late one night when he gathered a group of dancers (including Donna McKechnie, who would originate the role of Cassie, which was pretty much based on her anyway). Listening to those tapes (happily transcribed on screen, though not always completely accurately) is astonishing because there are lines directly lifted from those conversations that are key moments of dialogue in the show. The movie doesn’t go into the controversy that raged for years about how those people on whom the show is based were (or were not) compensated.

But it’s clear that Bennett was a genius and A Chorus Line exists because of his creative motor and his ability to surround himself with talented people like Edward Kleban (lyricist), Marvin Hamlisch (composer) and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

There’s great footage from the original 1975 production, especially of the extraordinary McKechnie performing “The Music and the Mirror,” and some fascinating interview footage of Bennett (who gave one of the all-time great Tony acceptance speeches, which is seen at the end of the movie and in the clip below).

The casting process for the revival is pretty interesting as well. Director Bob Avian (who co-choreographed the original production) works alongside casting director Jay Binder and choreographer Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to find just the right people – original but adhering closely to the specific requirements of the characters.

What impressed me about watching the eight-month-long audition process is just how hard performers work and what a grueling process auditioning is (hey, it’s a lot like what you see on stage in A Chorus Line). It’s interesting to see Nikki Snelson come this close to getting the role of Val (“Dance Ten, Looks Three”). She seems really burned by the process and the fact that she didn’t get cast. But then she gets the last laugh (though you wouldn’t know it from the movie): she landed the role of Cassie in the Broadway tour of the revival production (which we saw in San Francisco last summer—read my review here).

We also see Rick Faugno come close to getting cast as Mike (“I Can Do That”), but what the movie doesn’t add is that even though Faugno lost the role to Jeffrey Schecter, he lands the role of Frankie Valli in the Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys.

Another great thing about this movie is that we finally get a celluloid representation of the film that is true to the spirit of the show. The 1985 Richard Attenborough-directed film just doesn’t do it.

By far the film’s most affecting scene is the audition of Jason Tam for the key role of Paul, who delivers a shattering monologue about his parents catching him performing in a seedy Times Square drag theater. If you want to see what a phenomenal audition looks like, check out the way Tam reduces all the Chorus Line veterans behind the table into quivering puddles of tears. Avian and Binder can’t really even speak afterward except to say, “Sign him up.”

Here’s the movie trailer:

Review: `A Chorus Line’

Opened July 9, Curran Theatre

The national tour of A Chorus Line features a cast that can dance,
but the singing and acting is, to say the least, spotty. Photos by Paul Kolnik


On second thought, maybe `Chorus Line’ is past its prime

I didn’t experience one singular sensation at A Chorus Line now onstage at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Not one.

This leads me to think that the landmark 1975 musical, with its Tonys and Pulitzer, hasn’t aged all that well after all. Either that or it’s a show that just doesn’t stand up to multiple viewings.

Almost two years ago, the Broadway-bound revival of A Chorus Line had its world premiere in San Francisco, and that was thrilling. The young, talented company felt the weight of expectations and, for the most part, rose to the occasion. The show moved to Broadway, recouped its investment and is about to end a respectable run.

Now we have the national tour, here under the auspices of SHN/Best of Broadway, and it’s a far cry from the 2006 production, which many said was a far cry from the original.

I have a theory that Chorus Line is a first-time show. You’ll always love the first cast you saw, and you’ll be so pulled in by the show’s pre-reality TV reality mechanism that you won’t notice how creaky and dated it is. The emotions of the dancers, the actual excitement of finding who makes the cut at the end of a grueling audition is palpable the first time you see the show.

Michael Bennett, James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, Edward Kleban and Marvin Hamlisch created a beautiful show that explored the very human need to be chosen, to be special and to find work you truly love. They chose the high-wattage world of Broadway performers, but there’s universality in their story.

Though I had seen various productions through the years (not the original or any variation of the original on Broadway), I loved the revival because it overcame the mid-’70s world of the show to find those universalities and connect with a modern audience. I got chills the first time the cast sang, “God, I hope I get it.” And the horn blasts during “The Music and the Mirror” made me quiver. I was a mess during the “One” finale and swore the advertising campaign was right: “The Best Musical. Ever.”

Well, now I’m not so sure. The show I saw at the Curran was ragged and uneven. It didn’t help matters that the sound system was rebelling and some of the actors had to perform their monologues without a mic (kudos to Jay Armstrong Johnson as Mark for handling the sound glitch like a real pro). In general, the show is well danced, but the acting and singing are erratic, and, in some cases, downright awful.

Bennett’s original staging was revolutionary in 1975, but Bob Avian’s re-staging (he was the co-choreographer on the original production) is limp. How many times can you bring in the mirrors to add some razzle-dazzle? And the Hamlisch-Kleban score, though it has high points (“One,” “What I Did for Love,” “I Hope I Get It”), also has weak spots, which are even more apparent with this company. The ridiculous “inner monologue” of the choristers wondering what they should talk about when the director (Michael Gruber) calls on them is cheesy at best.

Not all is lost here. Kevin Santos as Paul delivers the “I was a 16-year-old drag queen” monologue with dignity and genuine emotion. And Nikki Snelson as Cassie – last seen here and on Broadway as an imprisoned aerobics instructor in Legally Blonde – pours on the energy in her big solo, “The Music and the Mirror,” though she barely seemed to get through it.

Vocally throughout, there were pitch problems, and Natalie Elise Hall’s butchering of “Dance: 10; Looks: Three” was shocking. You have to hand it to her – she’s making a big choice to do something different, but her Judy-Holliday-meets-Kristin-Chenoweth routine is a horror show and seems like something from another show. How did director Avian let her get away with that?

Maybe I’ve reached my Chorus Line quota. I was bored, and it’s only a two-hour show. I didn’t care who got it, and the gold-lamé finale, though good to see like an old friend is good to see, was not loaded with charisma, but it was, like this production, an ambling shambler.

A Chorus Line continues through July 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$99. Call or visit www.shnsf.com.

`Chorus Line’ seeks next singular sensation

Before we get started, here’s a taste of A Chorus Line with current cast member Mario Lopez and the cast on “Dancing with the Stars”

If you think you’re “uncommonly rare, very unique, peripatetic, poetic and chic” then this contest may be for you.

In preparation for the arrival of the A Chorus Line national tour at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre July 8-27, SHN/Best of Broadway is taking part in a talent competition called “Be the One.”

Head to http://auditions.achorusline.com/san-francisco and create an online audition profile (you’ll also find the rules and regulations there). Then you can show off your talents (nothing dirty) through video clips, photos or blog entries that help explain why you should “Be the One,” or in other words, why you are one singular sensation, every little step you take.

The contest is now through July 13, and once your audition is online, the public will vote on their favorites. The four men and four women who receive the most votes will win a “Be the One” prize package: two tickets to A Chorus Line, a $50 gift certificate for dinner, the new cast recording of “A Chorus Line” and a signed poster from the cast. The only thing better might be joining the famous gold-spangled kick-line at the end of the show.

The eight finalists will also be entered into the next round of competition against finalists from other cities on the Line tour, where they will fight for the national grand prize: a trip to New York City (airfare included), hotel accommodations, tickets to Broadway shows, backstage tours, show merchandise, meet-and-greets and more. (No worries about seeing A Chorus Line again because the Broadway revival that spawned this tour is closing Aug. 18 after what will have been more than 750 performances, a far cry from the original’s nearly 15 years. Even with Mario Lopez in the cast, the show can’t quite draw the crowds.)

A Chorus Line runs July 8-27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.shnsf.com. For podcasts and other backstage tidbits, visit http://shnsf.com/podcast/index.asp.

Ramping up to the Tony Awards

This Sunday, the Tony Awards will be handed out.
Here’s what you need to know (and get busy organizing your Tony party — we’ve got to get those dismal ratings out of the basement so CBS will continue broadcasting the darn things).

For the first time, there will be pre-ceremony Tony Concert chock full of juicy musical numbers from all the nominated shows. In the Bay Area the concert will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on KPIX-TV. Mario Lopez (currently playing Zach in A Chorus Line) hosts, and we’ll see numbers from 10 musicals: A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, Grease, Gypsy, In The Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George, The Little Mermaid and Xanadu—on stage at the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park South visible to viewers of the telecast.

Nominees who perform on the program include Laura Benanti (Gypsy), Daniel Breaker and Stew (Passing Strange), Kerry Butler (Xanadu), Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George), Faith Prince (A Catered Affair) and Loretta Ables Sayre (South Pacific).

“We’ve tried very hard not to cannibalize anything that will be on the actual Tony telecast, but just to whet people’s appetites for June 15,” says The Broadway League’s Jan Friedlander Svendsen, who is an executive producer of the special. “We purposely didn’t want this in costume, we didn’t want big production numbers. We wanted it to feel very intimate. And we wanted to have those up-close-and-personal profiles.”

Actor nominees who are interviewed during the pre-Tony telecast include Laurence Fishburne, who talks about his role as a Supreme Court justice in Thurgood, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, who reveal a touching story from the casting of their revival of Macbeth. Steppenwolf Theatre Company members Laurie Metcalf (November) and Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed from the Best Play nominee August: Osage County celebrate the success of Steppenwolf-ers on Broadway this season—the roster also includes Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson—who all told represent six different Broadway shows.

“One of the issues with the Tonys is, often times, not all of our nominees are as well known as, say, Oscar nominees,” says Svendsen. “It’s great to let audiences be exposed to some of those who aren’t as well known. It’s kind of like the Olympics. Many of those athletes aren’t as famous, and one of my favorite parts of watching the Games is getting to know those athletes from a human interest side. Then I have an emotional connection with them and a more rooting interest in who’s going to win.”

The Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (thank God someone on “The View” cares about theater since Rosie O’Donnell’s departure) begin at 8 p.m. on TV, but watching the tape delay is so retro. Why not tune into the live Webcast? Past Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Julie White host. Log on to www.tonyawards.com for all the details.

On the broadcast, we’ll get musical numbers from all four of the Best Musical nominees (Cry-Baby, In The Heights, Passing Strange and Xanadu) and the four Best Musical Revival nominees (Grease, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific).

Also represented will be three other new Broadway musicals: A Catered Affair, The Little Mermaid and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. And just for good measure, Rent and The Lion King will also make appearances.

Video memories from past Tony winners, clips from nominated shows and a whole lot more await you at www.tonyawards.com, your one-stop shop for Tony Award information.

To whet your appetite, here’s Passing Strange on “The View.”

`Chorus Line’ closing, `Spring’ awakening

News of Broadway just because:

The revival of A Chorus Line will close Aug. 17 after 759 performances. The production, which had its premiere in San Francisco before heading to Broadway, recouped its costs in only 19 weeks.

Fans shouldn’t mourn. The touring production lives on and will play July 8-27 at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

And because they’re still adorable, here are the kids from Spring Awakening performing a medley from the show on “Good Morning America” last March. It’s also a chance to say goodbye to Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele who have since departed the show (Groff is starring in Hair in Central Park this summer). Please appreciate the re-working of “Totally Fucked” for television broadcast.

Remember the national tour of Spring Awakening kicks off in San Francisco Sept. 4 at the Curran. Click here for information.

One singular sensation one more time

Bay Area audiences were the first to see the most recent revival of A Chorus Line before it headed to New York (where it’s still running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre).

Now, as the Broadway production moves beyond its 500th performance (celebrated last January), it’s time for the Line to hit the road. The national tour will return to the Curran Theatre July 8 through 27 as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. This is the same theater that launched the very first A Chorus Line national tour in 1976.

Michael Gruber, who plays Zach on tour, was actually a member of the line during the original A Chorus Line’s record-breaking, nearly 15-year run on Broadway. He was in the final company playing Mike, who sings “I Can Do That.”

Another notable name in the cast is Nikki Snelson, who plays Cassie. Bay Area audiences saw Snelson in TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Kept and again in that company’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Snelson originated the role of the accused murderer/exercise guru in Legally Blonde, which had its pre-Broadway tryout at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Tickets go on sale May 4 and will run $25 to $99. Call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com or www.ticketmaster.com

Tony party planning

OK, people, time to start planning those Tony Award viewing parties for Sunday, June 10 on CBS.

We’ve got to get those dismal ratings up, so if you’re having people over, make sure they’re still setting their TiVos (and VCRs if you’re archaic) to record the telecast. If you’re a Nielsen family, do some creative figuring and say you watched the Tonys on all five of your TVs.

The show’s organizers have begun talking about what we’ll be seeing.

Audra McDonald will sing “Raunchy” from 110 in the Shade, for which she is nominated in the best actress in a musical category.

Christine Ebersole will sing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” which happens to be the best song in Grey Gardens, for which Ebersole is competing with McDonald in the best actress category.

The cast of Curtains, featuring David Hyde Pearce, will peform “Show People” and the adorable cast of Spring Awakening (so I’m biased — sue me) will perform a medley from the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score. The cast of Mary Poppins will perform — probably the TV-ready “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The revival of A Chorus Line will likely trot out “One” again (we’ve seen that baby everywhere, from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to “The View”), and Raul Esparza will probably sing “Being Alive” from the revival of Company.

Fantasia, a recent replacement in the hit The Color Purple, is also slated to perform.

There won’t be a host (sorry, Nathan Lane) this year, but the list of presenters is impressive and includes Harry Connick Jr., Claire Danes, Neil Patrick Harris, Anne Heche, Marg Helgenberger, Felicity Huffman, Eddie Izzard, Jane Krakowski, Angela Lansbury, Robert Sean Leonard, Cynthia Nixon, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer, Liev Schreiber, John Turturro, Usher, Vanessa Williams, Rainn Wilson and the cast of Jersey Boys.

Tony, Tony, Tony

Tony nominations were announced this morning, and to my great delight, Spring Awakening nabbed a leading 11 nominations, including two acting noms for Jonathan Groff (best actor in a musical) and John Gallagher Jr. (best featured actor in a musical).

Grey Gardens received 10 nominations, including one for Christine Ebersole (best actress in a musical), whom many consider the front runner.

In the play categories, Tom Stoppard’s mammoth, three-play cycle The Coast of Utopia snagged 10 nominations. In the acting categories, the best actress slot is filled with Broadway royalty: Angela Lansbury (Deuce), Vanessa Redgrave (The Year of Magical Thinking) and Swoosie Kurtz (Heartbreak House). Tough choice.

Bay Area theater fans got the first peek at several nominees:

Legally Blonde scored seven nominations: best book (Heather Hach); score (Music & Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin); actress (Laura Bell Bundy); featured actor (Christian Borle); featured actress (Orfeh); choreography (Jerry Mitchell); costume design (Gregg Barnes).

A Chorus Line received two nominations: best musical revival and featured actress (Charlotte d’Amboise).

Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me received one surprising nomination: featured actor (Brooks Ashmanskas).

One of the two nominees for special theatrical event is Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway, which comes to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater this summer. The other “special” nominee is the ventriloquism show Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.

For a complete list of nominations, visit the American Theatre Wing Web site.

The Tony Awards will be broadcast on June 10 on CBS. Start planning the party now.

Blame it on Broadway

This was the year that Elton John and Anne Rice’s musical Lestat bit the big one and High Fidelity was a sound no one wanted to hear.

Those of us who saw Lestat in its pre-Brodway run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre knew the show had a stake through its heart from the get go. And as for High Fidelity (right), the sample songs on the show’s Web site were so boring it was hard to muster enthusiasm enough to dislike them. Another show with a boringly bland pop score, The Wedding Singer, made a respectable go of it but never reached hit status.

Bay Area folks should not be holding their breaths for a tour of Twyla Tharp’s take on Bob Dylan songs, The Times They Are A Changing. Our Theatre Dogs spies spotted a dog, and they were right. The circus-themed show is history.

Disney launched two new Broadway shows, and though Tarzan is still swinging, it failed to generate much in the way of buzz or critical accolades. Mary Poppins, on the other hand, generated big buzz and a full spectrum of reviews. To me, the most interesting Disney show didn’t open on Broadway. Finding Nemo: The Musical, began performances in Walt Disney World. This marks the first time Disney has taken a non-musical movie and turned it into a stage musical. This is a mini-theme park musical, but if all goes well (so far, buzz is good), we can expect to see Nemo, Marlin, Dory and friends swimming along Broadway.

Bay Area audiences can’t be surprised that A Chorus Line is proving to be a solid hit on Broadway. We saw the out-of-town preview, so we got a taste of what the new cast had to offer in this lively carbon copy version of the 1975 hit. With any luck, our next big pre-Broadway show, Legally Blonde, will be equally as exciting. We were also the first to see Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, and though the show that ended up on Broadway was pretty different than what we saw, it should be no surprise that the always charming Short found his audience. Though the show is closing in early January, it had a respectable run.

When I head to New York, the shows I most want to see are the musicals Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening and Tom Stoppard’s play cycle The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center. Can’t imagine any of those will head for the Bay Area in 2007, but we can dream, can’t we? Really wish I could have seen Meryl Streep in Mother Courage in Central Park.

So what Broadway hits might actually be making their way toward the Bay Area? There’s no confirmation of anything, but we might expect the musical The Color Purple to wend our way.

Looking ahead, there are a couple shows blinking brightly off in the distance. One is a legitimate source of excitement. Angela Lansbury returns to Broadway in Terrence McNally’s Deuce alongside Marian Seldes. The other is a warning sign pointing toward the May Broadway debut of Xanadu: The Musical, which features songs from the flop 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie of the same name. Rumors have Jane Krakowski, Cheyenne Jackson and Ben Vereen reprising roles they performed in workshops of the new musical.

`Chorus Line’ buzz

Steve Kluger, a friend of Theater Dogs (FoTD), was so impressed by A Chorus Line in San Francisco (see the Aug. 25 entry) that he bought a ticket for a preview performance in New York.

Well, seems like the kids in the Chorus are poised to become a big hit…again.

Here’s what Steve has to say about his recent Broadway experience:

So I was at the first Broadway Chorus Line preview on Monday. Oh God, Chad. It was everything I wanted it to be. The applause and cheering were so consistent, it must have added 25 minutes to the running time. At the end of “I Hope I Get It”, when the cast is downstage with their headshots covering their faces, there are supposed to be four beats from the orchestra before Paul sings, “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?” On Monday, there were 23. The audience just wouldn’t let the show go on.

My favorite part was afterward. The stage door is right on the street, so barricades were set up that would allow people to crowd against them but still permit the cast to have a narrow alley to get through. There were at least 75 people clamoring for autographs, and as each kid came out, he/she got an ovation. It generally took them each 10-15 minutes to get through the line. Stars are born. Just like in ’75.

Sounds pretty exciting. Glad we got to see it first.