This landmark 1975 musical remains a “singular sensation” in its current reincarnation, a road version that has settled for a spell at the Paper Mill Playhouse. The kicks, leaps, pivots and struts still manage to summon a surge of excitement. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, the N.Y. Drama Critics honor and nine Tony Awards not only retains its gloss but also holds a unique distinction as the definitive backstage musical.
The book by Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood, which focuses on the lives and ambitions of hopeful Broadway dancers, still reaches out with a sense of contained desperation — “Oh God, I need this job!” The music by Marvin Hamlisch was critically shortchanged when the show originally opened, dismissed by some as ragged and humdrum. With the passage of time, the melodies now seem comfortably familiar but also bold, aggressively supportive and richly melodic. There is particular resonance in the insightful lyrics by Edward Kleban, whose own life story was staged in last season’s “A Class Act.”
Baayork Lee, the original Connie (“Tap is not my thing”), has turned the show into an industry, directing several touring companies and revivals. Her latest version remains faithful to the original concept, intent and choreography of the show’s creator, Michael Bennett. Lee captures the heart and soul of the piece and, most of all, the pace and precision of its movement and its ensemble nature.
Individual performances are strong, and not necessarily mirror copies of the memorable originals. Caitlin Carter plays Cassie, the once-promising chorine who flirted with stardom and now is a maturing hoofer. She gives the character a decisive new look, and her stunning solo, “The Music and the Mirror,” remains a dazzling show-stopper.
Cindy Marchionda, as the urban tough Morales, sings “What I Did for Love,” and it remains a touching showbiz credo. Shane Rhoades offers a breezy and confident “I Can Do That,” and Kim Shriver, as the sardonic Sheila, has the necessary brittle bite.
Paul, the insecure dancer who tells his tale of growing up gay and working professionally as a drag queen, provides Luis Villabon with the show’s most emotionally vital narrative. Villabon brings a youthful vulnerability to the role and the scene seems more touching than ever. Other roles, right down the line from Mike Bove’s Zach to Nadine Isenegger’s Val, are on target.
Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes, an assortment of pullovers, tights, sweaters and scarves, still provide each character with distinctive identities. Tharon Musser’s original lighting design has been keenly re-created by Richard Winkler, as has Robin Wagner’s scenic design.