Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch … again. The touring “A Chorus Line” carefully respects and duplicates the trappings — if not always the tone — of Michael Bennett’s long-running, award-winning backstager in which 17 auditioning Broadway gypsies expose themselves (psychologically) to win a chance to dance. The yeoman efforts of Bob Avian, 1975 co-choreographer and current helmer, introduce the groundbreaking staging to a new generation without disturbing the memories of those who reveled in its original incarnation.
Sources of the tuner’s appeal remain undimmed: Bennett’s ceaselessly fluid amalgam of past and present; Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban’s serviceably snappy numbers; the bitter anecdotes and uproarious one-liners James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante culled from Bennett’s original mid-1970s tell-all workshops. Insight into dancers’ unique lifestyles generates interest, while details of their difficult adolescence and dreams achieved or deferred create empathy.
And then there’s the dancing: not just the fully staged numbers (there are surprisingly few) but the individually expressive steps wordlessly revealing character — who’s stiff and who’s limber; who’s picking up combinations quickly and who’s adding something attention-getting. Every company member can echo the triumphant lyric “God, I’m a dancer!,” the group fully realizing Bennett’s trademark complex movement engaging both mind and eye.
Puzzlingly, they show a shocking lack of deference to Zach (Michael Gruber), the helmer who controls their fate. Diana (Gabrielle Ruiz) and Bobby (Ian Liberto) are outright rude when asked to open up, and the retort of imperious Sheila (Emily Fletcher) to the casting of four boys and four girls — “Need any women?” — is snarky rather than brave. When Zach snaps at her, we expect her bravado will slip as she wonders whether she’s blown it, yet Fletcher remains serenely defiant.
Whatever the reason — are scary director-choreographers in the Bennett/Robbins/Fosse mode beyond cast’s ken? — they may sing “I really need this job” but their manner too often says otherwise. This attitude significantly reduces the stakes and suspense: If they aren’t on tenterhooks, how can we be? So this “Chorus Line” must derive its emotional involvement from individuals’ investing roles with depth and need.
Clyde Alves’ Mike deftly proceeds from shy youth to cocky adulthood during the brief “I Can Do That.” Novice Mark (Jay Armstrong Johnson) strongly registers eagerness at every opportunity, while vet Cassie (Nikki Snelson) acts her bravura “Music and the Mirror” as a desperate effort to prove she’s still got what it takes.
Natalie Hall’s Val rouses the audience with a broadly narcissistic “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” Coarseness strips the number of its wry jabs at casting practices, but she sure grabs focus for her orchestra and balcony, which is Val’s intent, after all.
Biggest surprise, because the role has lost much of its novelty, is Kevin Santos’ Paul, the bullied dropout exploited as a youthful drag artist. Sustaining the illusion of entertaining these thoughts for the first time, Santos restores confessional’s freshness and earns his climactic emotional explosion. (Snelson, far too weepy in her approaches to Zach, could usefully hold back the waterworks as Santos does.)
Natasha Katz’s revised lighting makes greater use of saturated gels than Tharon Musser’s original plot, if memory serves, but no purist could possibly regret the kaleidoscopic color she applies to the flashback sequences. And lit starkly or lushly, Robin Wagner’s legendary mirrors continue to thrill as they periodically transform a black box into a magic one.