Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch.
For years we’ve been so steeped in the idea of “A Chorus Line” being a classic show that it’s easy to forget just how thrilling those opening words must have been when the musical first hit Broadway. Edward Kleban’s opening lyric, which kicks off the opening song “I Hope I Get It,” is nothing more than Zach, the director character in the show, teaching choreography to a bunch of dancers auditioning for an unnamed Broadway production, but there’s something else wrapped up in those now iconic words: Apprehension. Hope. Tension. Fear.
And, more than anything: excitement and anticipation.
For a successful production “A Chorus Line,” you have to hook the viewer from the start with those two qualities. I sensed them in abundance in the opening moments of the vibrant Children’s Musical Theaterworks production at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. From the confident opening stances of the cast to the terrific sound of the full orchestra (ah, the glories of a 16-piece orchestra!), this well-staged production, meticulously directed by Josh Montgomery, who recreates Michael Bennett’s choreography from the original Broadway production, is solid and often thrilling. In particular, it’s one of the best danced CMT shows I’ve seen in years. (It continues 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.)
Some might balk at a “Chorus Line” — with music by Marvin Hamlisch and book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante — performed by younger actors. (This is CMT’s “oldest” show of the summer, with a cast ranging in age from 15 to 22.) True, it’s a stretch for those playing the show’s older characters, some of whom are out of their 20s, and therefore in “dancer” years are practically ancient. Part of “A Chorus Line’s” appeal is the way it captures the angst and insecurities of those who have been laboring for years with no real job security — and wondering where they’re going next. But this CMT production is surprisingly effective when it comes to the age issue, with such performers as Brandon Delsid (as the aging Gregory) and Hannah Huyck (as the snippy Sheila) putting a real crackle into their characters.
The major veteran character in the show, of course, is Cassie, the former up-and-coming Broadway star reduced to trying to find a job in the chorus once again. Sarah Waxman is a standout in the role, particularly in her extended dance sequence in “The Music and the Mirror,” which thanks to Montgomery masterfully creates the famed moment in the show when it seems as if Cassie’s presence expands to envelop the stage. Vocally strong, she also excels in her important dramatic moments with Zach (Dillon Morgan), as we get a sense of a middling career slowly sputtering to a halt. (How many Cassies are there out there, the ones who almost make it, compared to the superstars?)
Morgan, as Zach, offers a smooth performance, but he among all the major characters didn’t quite bridge the age issue for me. And I thought there was something almost too crisp and rhythmic about his performance, as if he’s worried about hitting all his counts. An example: When Zach rushes from the back of the house to comfort the despondent Paul (Branden Gonzalez, in a stirring monologue), the help he offers seems brisk and mechanical, instead of being an emotional high point.
The strongest vocals in the show are delivered by Cady Mejias, who belts out such a powerful “Nothing” that in a couple of moments she actually needs to tone it down a little. Mejias puts her appealing voice to good use in a stirring “What I Did For Love.”
Other standouts in the large ensemble cast include Dannah Lemon as Bebe, Logan Carnation as Maggie and Hyuck as Sheila in a strongly staged “At the Ballet,” and Niko Kazanjian and Alyssa Benitez as the cute couple Kristine and Al. The dancing is particularly strong in this production, from Julian Perez’s Mike and Michael Dumas’ Richie to Edgar Gonzalez, a true standout in the cast as dance captain Philip.
Though “A Chorus Line” doesn’t require much in terms of setting (Kris Cadieux did the scenic design) and costumes (Trina Short is costume designer), both are strong. So is Dan Aldape’s lighting design, though one of the few technical flaws in Friday’s opening night performance was sluggish light cues. (The sound wasn’t superior, with many mushy lyrics, but the balance between cast and orchestra was mostly fine.)
And speaking of that orchestra: Conductor Matthew Wheeler coaxed a first-rate sound from his musicians, wringing out every emotive drop from the brassy flourishes but just as importantly providing a solid foundation with the endless vamps under character songs and dialogue.
My only pullback from offering a completely sterling review of this show is because of the finale. The dancing just wasn’t as crisp and prepared as it needed to be opening night when the full complement of dancers took the stage. (I realize dancing prowess varies in a cast this size, but at least everyone can stop kicking at the same time.) And in terms of design, the finale could have used more visual razzle-dazzle. But considering the difficulty of this show and the deep bench of talent required, CMT has delivered a very nearly singular sensation, indeed.
Photos by Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee