Review: A Chorus Line

 

a-chorus-line-photo-by-phil-martin

Source: Ordway.com

A Chorus Line has had a certain allure to me since my grandmother complained about seeing a local production of it in her hometown. She hated it, deploring the foul language and sexual subject matter. Naturally I assumed it was right up my alley.

I was thrilled to see that the Ordway would be including it in their season this year and I’ve been looking forward it for quite some time. This show does something I haven’t seen onstage before – creating a love story focused on those who are usually overlooked in a performance, those who are not cast as leads but in the chorus. Through the stories of these performers, A Chorus Line weaves a stunning, touching tale of what people do for their work and their love of art, specifically dance.

Set in the midst of an audition to find four male and four female dancers, twenty-four hopeful dances dancers – cut down to seventeen at the top of the show – share their stories of finding dance as they are called upon by the director, Zach (Tom Berklund). Focusing on what called people to dance, whether it’s escaping a poor family life and yearning to have beautiful (“At the Ballet”) or because their family danced and they enjoyed it (“I Can Do That”), the characters are literally fleshed out through their physicality and movement.

There are moments of utter frankness in language and body that are apparently still shocking to some people (including the very uncomfortable couple sitting next to me that left early). But this show is so much more than its language or portrayal of sexuality, though that is central to the story lines of several of the characters. It is, however, focused on the body and the physical aspects of performance as well as the mental aspects. It’s easy to forget how much theater physically demands of its performers and this show reminds of it at every moment. It especially highlights the more superficial aspects and how they hurt their performers through typecasting and focusing on what a dancer looks like. In “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” Val (Maria Briggs) humorously and bitingly explains how she couldn’t get cast in any show until she had plastic surgery. Her flaunting of her new body and her attempts to convince how easy it is to obtain – “just go out in buy it” stand in stark contrast to the stories of those who use dance to feel better about their bodies, especially Paul (Omar Garibay) who’s story of using dance to come to terms with his sexuality is touching and powerful.

In the end, the story of Cassie (Molly Tynes), a lead dancer who went to Hollywood only to find she couldn’t get any work and has returned to audition for chorus, is one of the most powerful. Questioned by Zach how she could possibly return to the chorus, Cassie responds that she would be proud and honored to be in the chorus. Zach is confused and asks “Don’t you want to be special?” To which Cassie retorts that each and every person in the chorus is special. They all have their own story and their own style and, while they come together and dance the same, they all have their own unique character. By the end of the audition, with each character struggling to figure out what they will do when they can no longer dance, they in some ways decided it doesn’t matter – what does matter is that they had this opportunity to do “what they did for love,” for the love of dance, and that they don’t regret it.

There are aspects of the show that feel a bit dated and some of the characters sound a bit cliched, but by the end, an array of complexity and the uniqueness that Cassie cherishes is realized. In some ways, this show is now a period piece, providing a look at what it was like working Broadway in the 1970s. In other ways – the anxiety around auditioning, the desperate need to get work, the worries of what Broadway theater are becoming – are timely.

The Ordway’s staging is clever and somewhat immersive, stationing Zach at an audition table in the front of the mezzanine section of the theater (the upper level of the main orchestra area). As he goes back and forth between the stage and the table, it’s almost as if the audience isn’t there and an actual audition is taking place. Taken into this staging is a way of showing love to other unsung voices in theater who are overlooked just as much as the chorus. The lighting in this show is incredible and the costuming manages to capture each character’s personality while still keeping inside the bounds of dance audition gear. The orchestrations are gorgeous and the pit, led by Raymond Berg, sound phenomenal. And while there isn’t much of a set, the set pieces of mirrors that are used add a wonderful compliment and glamour to the performance. And of course there’s choreography – something that even I am guilty of overlooking in performances. This show makes you pay attention to choreography as it’s all about it – the dance, how the body moves, and how people can be characterized by movement.

What’s best about this show is that you don’t have to be a member of the theater community to love and understand what it’s about. It it especially easy for artists to relate to but even those who took dance in their childhood, have ever interviewed for their dream job, struggled to understand their bodies in their teenage years, or had issues with a teacher in a field they loved will appreciated this show. And if you did take dance in your youth, it’ll make you wish you’d never stopped.

 

A Chorus Line is playing now through February 28 at the Ordway Theater. Ticket information and the show schedule can be found on the Ordway’s website.

Black History Month in Theater

It’s Black History Month and what better way to celebrate with some great theater? Here’s three shows not to miss in the Twin Cities Area:

Ruby!: The Story of Ruby Bridges at Steppingstone Theater – With a charming cast of local actors (including Charla Maria Bailey, Misti Koop, Nic Delcambre, and Joseph Miller) and young actors from Twin Cities schools (featuring Rylee F Armstrong and Danyelle Robinson as Ruby), Ruby! tells the often forgotten tale of Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Her story of courage and fortitude, told through song and dance, is moving and aimed towards children, providing a great way to introduce them to the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bright Half Life at Pillsbury House Theater – Looking for some modern history? While it isn’t exactly a Black History play, Bright Half Life deals with the ups and downs of Vicky (Jasmine Hughes) and Erica (Sarah Agnew) in a mixed-race relationship that extends decades. Jumping back and forth between the past, present, and future, this play explores the challenges of love and portrays the relationship with poignancy and grace. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, this show is heart-warming and beautiful.

George Bonga at History Theater – In a new work premiere, this show follows the story of George Bonga (James Williams), a voyageur and pathfinder in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, who was given the task of tracking down an Ojibwe man (Jake Waid) accused of murdering a white man. This intense show delivers a a deep conversation about race and the complexity of labels, especially in 19th century Minnesota. It’s a fascinating look at a little known bit of Minnesota history.

Ruby! is written by Christina Ham and directed by Anya Kremenetsky, with music by Gary Rue. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on Steppingstone’s website.

Bright Half Life is written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Ellen Fenster. It runs now through February 21. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theater’s website.

George Bonga is written by Carlyle Brown and directed by Marion McClinton. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on History Theatre’s website.

Review: The Amish Project

For a show representing a fictionalized account of an event that occurred nearly ten years ago, it is breathtaking how relevant Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project is to current affairs. Based upon the shooting in Nickel Pines, PA in October of 2006, this one-person show explores the the effects the shooting had on the community and how people dealt with such a senseless tragedy. Dickey negotiates complicated layers created by two Amish girls, the widow of the shooter, a resident of Nickel Mines, a professor of Amish culture, a young woman working in the town, and the shooter himself, performing each character with clarity and honesty.

Wrapped up into this delicate play are deep considerations of loss, grief, hatred, anger, fear, and forgiveness. Centering around not the horrific act itself but the aftermath of Carol, the gunman’s widow, being changed by the kindness and forgiveness the Amish community shows her, the play doesn’t attempt to ask, “Why did this occur?” (noting at one point that the Amish don’t ask this question). Instead, it pinpoints this pivotal moment, a situation that Dickey described as, “a radical act in the face of unimaginable violence.” Carol, who has been consumed with pain at being called the wife of a “sicko” in the supermarket finds it unbelievable that the victims’ families are able to not only forgive her but comfort her and help her. Though “darkness ate him [her husband]… and now it’s eating me” and she believes she lives in a world where she’s “two days from sicko” herself, Carol is transcended by this act, pushing her from a world where tragedy that happens everyday somehow coexists with incredible kindness and gentleness.

Dickey’s impulse to fictionalize rather than realize the events this story is based on feels right, to leave the Amish to their privacy and to avoid any chance of sensationalizing this tragedy. A space is then created where the issues of broadcasting and media, questioning beliefs of all kinds, and considering forgiveness of an unknown gunman can be fully considered without a constant referral to actual people. We can leave what we personally know about the event behind and enter Dickey’s world, to share Carol’s wonder at how it is possible to believe anything at all while also understanding young Velda’s view of joy, a six-year-old Amish girl who simply believes that joy stands for Jesus, others, and putting yourself last. Faith and religion are a running narrative throughout the show but regardless of one’s background and beliefs, the themes are poignant and compassionate. It is rare that work dealing with spiritual ideas avoid feeling exclusionary but this one manages to do it not only well but with great poignancy. As an audience member described, the force of the ensemble allows the audience to feel a part of the show and this allows a sort of dialogue to take place through powerful moments of silence and realization.

The imagery of this show is also powerful: through lighting, set, and staging with Dickey’s physical movements, and also in the images painted by dialogue, through referrals to flight, meadows, the unseen character of Aaron, and the painful moment of sadness being so visible that it appears “like a wet towel” around the neck. But most powerful of all is the image of hope that is expressed throughout the the entire piece.

Included as part of the Guthrie’s “Singular Voices, Plural Perspectives” series, each show includes a post-show discussion with Dickey, allowing audiences members to share their thoughts and ask questions. Part of Joe Haj’s initiative to create a more town hall-like conversation around performances, it is a wonderful opportunity to for the artist to receive feedback and for audiences to engage more personally with the work.

 

“The Amish Project” is written and performed by Jessica Dickey. It is playing in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater from now through February 14th. Ticketing information and show dates can be found on the Guthrie’s website.