Review – A Chorus Line – revisited – London Palladium, 2nd June 2013

A Chorus LineA few months ago – on 23rd February to be precise – Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see A Chorus Line at the Palladium. It was the first non-preview Saturday night. I loved it, as I knew I would, having loved it ever since as a slightly insecure 16 year old I sat, by myself, in Row C of the stalls at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and became instantly captivated by this life-enhancing show that taught me so much about, well, everything really. £5.50 that ticket cost me; I must have saved up for weeks. One of the best investments I ever made.

Victoria Hamilton-BarrittAs I mentioned in my previous blog, I’ve kept the faith with this show basically all my life, seeing it not only in London, but also in Oxford, Sheffield and on Broadway. February’s trip was my 12th time of seeing it – and Mrs C’s 4th, bless her. She loves the show too – maybe not quite as fanatically as me. I guess we all have our own definition of “what I did for love”. Thanks to the kindness of a Third Party whom I shall not name – but if you’re reading this, thanks so much! – on Saturday we returned to see it again.

John PartridgeI’ve always been a “front stalls” man; that’s my default setting. But for this 13th viewing of A Chorus Line, we sat in the dress circle, and I’ve never seen the show from this angle before. It’s very impressive! It goes without saying that from the dress circle (Row B) you get a fantastic view of the entire stage. Even though you’re further back and you can’t see the sweat and the spit, there are other aspects of onstage activity that become more apparent. Specific elements of the dance; for example, Diana’s thumping tap moves, in an attempt to make some kind of noise with her sneakers, came across as really funny; and you could see that the accidental twist that results in an injury to one of the dancers was executed absolutely perfectly. The view also brought out the anxiety and buzz of the dancers mingling stage right, whilst they’re waiting for Larry to call them on to dance, or for Zach to choose them for his final seventeen. Absolute big up at this point to Georgie Ashford for a fabulous performance as Trisha during that first number. The resigned crestfallen looks from the dancers not chosen, somehow clearer from above, was something I had never really appreciated before.

Scarlett StrallenIf anything, the show is even better than three months ago. Everything flows so naturally and seamlessly. The voices are perfect, the dance moves stupendous. I’ve always loved Michael Bennett’s original choreography, it’s so eloquent yet subtle in comparison with Bob Fosse’s brash showmanship that most other people seemed to prefer at the time. Despite the fact that, as Cassie says, “they’re all special”, some roles are still seen as “starrier” than others and they’re all still sublimely performed. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt especially now really excels herself as Diana. She has taken the song “Nothing” and totally made it her own. With some quirky vocal expression and changes of pace she tells the story of that stupid course and the dreadful Mr Karp with such passion that we can see how that experience has strengthened Diana and shaped the way she copes with life’s problems today. Her “What I Did For Love” still hits home with its plaintive honesty and the whole cast’s backing singing is just superb – major goosebump time.

Leigh ZimmermannJohn Partridge continues to invest Zach with a humanity I’ve not seen in previous actors’ interpretations. His questioning technique of the dancers is rarely straightforward – at times he’s sly, provocative, humorous, compassionate, irate; and his questions in turn seem to elicit a more emotional response from the auditionee. His stage presence is just astounding, and he’s still loving that big number at the end. When Larry asks Sheila for her “I love to dance smile”, it’s Mr Partridge to whom they should look for inspiration.

Gary WatsonAs Cassie, I loved Scarlett Strallen’s heightened emotions when she and Zach are raking over the old coals of their former relationship; I’ve never heard a Cassie quite so outraged by Zach’s pig-headed selfishness. She’s got to keep on the right side of him because she wants the job, but there are some things she’s just not going to let him get away with! The two actors work together incredibly well in those scenes. And Leigh Zimmermann’s Sheila is still a brilliant portrayal of the slightly temperamental, definitely cynical, at heart vulnerable, brassy lady who knows there aren’t many years left that she can continue to be a chorus cutie. Her last look to Zach still speaks volumes.

Ed CurrieThe whole cast are superb, but I wanted to mention a few others that I didn’t talk about last time. There’s a terrifically solid and honest performance by Gary Watson as Don, who really brings his experience with Lola Latores and her twin forty-fours to life; it’s fun to imagine the two of them zooming off into the sunset in her pink Cadillac. I also loved the way he reacted to the final casting decision – absolutely right for that character. Ed Currie seems to have now really got to the heart of Bobby, “real weird” in that nerdy jumper, outrageously sending up the wackier aspects of his character but in an absolutely credible way. Frances Dee is a wonderfully out of tune Kristine, no pantomime character this but a real person who genuinely gets uptight through nerves; and Alastair Postlethwaite, who we thought would be destined for great things after seeing him in So You Think You Can Dance, is giving Larry a real character dimension; not just the assistant but someone who has to have a proper working relationship with Zach and with whom you sense he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye. Andy Rees is still a hugely entertaining Greg, and Harry Francis’ Mark – the character I always identified with when I was young – is a brilliant combination of youthful exuberance and awkward embarrassment. His dance skill is astonishing; you sense he could dance rings round the others given half a chance.

Andy ReesIn the performance we saw, the role of Paul, in many ways the most sympathetic and moving role in the show, was played by Michael Steedon. Paul has a stunningly written monologue to perform, and every Paul plays it slightly differently, obviously drawing on the actor’s own insights and experience. Mr Steedon is absolutely one of the best. Beautifully paced, sincere; I know that speech like the back of my hand and still it brought tears to my eyes.

Harry FrancisA funny thing happened halfway through the show – everything stopped! Judy had just confessed to kissing other girls as a rehearsal for when she wanted to start kissing guys when all the lights went out. Everything went silent; a little torch appeared at the sides of the stage and you heard the shuffle off of retreating dancers. Then, in a tone of immaculate calm, a disembodied voice announced that due to a technical issue they’d had to suspend the show and would get it going again as soon as possible. Well it’s not often that a number literally stops the show! I felt the lighting had gone awry in the “Mother” sequence beforehand; I don’t know if that was the cause. Anyway, for the first time, A Chorus Line actually had an interval! It was about ten minutes before they resumed the show, picking up precisely from where they had left off; and huge admiration to Andy Rees for getting straight back in with Greg’s “Hard” routine without a flicker of anything being wrong. That must have been quite nerve-racking.

Have to go back again soonOne other observation about this production of A Chorus Line is that I really like the fact that we now get an additional curtain call at the end. It was always a source of frustration to the teenage me that the last we saw of the performers was when the lights faded on the high kicks at the end of “One” – you never really felt you were given the opportunity fully to express your appreciation. Apart from the very last night in 1979, that is, when the lights went back up at the end of the show to reveal a stage and auditorium full of weeping cast and aficionados. Now, once the lights have faded, the dancers remain on stage one more time for a proper curtain call. Result: satisfaction all round.

Going back to see it again has satisfied me that the cast are still looking after the show wonderfully well – it’s all in very safe hands. Trouble is, now I’m going to have to go yet again. I knew I’d have to!

Review – A Chorus Line, London Palladium, 23rd February 2013

A Chorus Line 2013Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.

A Chorus Line 1976You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.

Toronto Cast 1976So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.

London Cast 1977Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.

UK Touring Cast 1987Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.

John Partridge Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.

Scarlett Strallen It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.

Leigh ZimmermannJohn Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.

Vicki Lee TaylorSheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.

Adam SalterVictoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.

Andy ReesBut the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do Harry Francisreally well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.

James T LaneSo I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!

PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!