A Chorus Line, Gutenberg! the Musical: one big, one small, one Dallas, one Fort Worth, both worth it.
The 24 dancers going through the "step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch" combination in the iconic opening moments of A Chorus Line are such nobodies they're referred to not by name but by number. Collectively, they are perpetually "boys" and "girls," though some are pushing 30 or have gone a step or two beyond it. On the outside, they're smiling, strutting and dancing full out. On the inside they're wrecks, saying over and over "God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it," meaning a job in the line behind the star of a glittery Broadway musical.
In the thrilling touring production now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, the dancing and singing are sensational, but it's the strong acting in this A Chorus Line that puts the real gloss on it. The show peels away the life stories of 17 eager finalists vying for eight positions. As they practice crazy-hard choreography in front of the mirrored wall on the big, bare stage, they're called out one by one to be drilled and grilled by Zach, the exacting director (played here by Michael Gruber). He's a martinet so unsentimental he coldly tries to dismiss his old girlfriend, Cassie (Robyn Hurder), mid-audition.
It's not enough for Zach to judge these dancers for high kicks and balletic technique—in Cassie's case, her kicks are too high and her technique too imbued with personality to "blend." He wants to weed out weaklings by digging into their pasts, asking provocative questions about why they dance for a living and what they'll do when they can't cut it anymore as Broadway gypsies. Monsters of physical movement, the dancers go shaky and shy at having to talk about themselves center stage. They're not sure what to say, only that they want to say whatever will get them hired. Many of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban's songs in A Chorus Line reflect the dancers' inner dialogues full of raging insecurity and desperation.
It's exciting to see the cast of this tour, spawned from the well-reviewed 2006 Broadway revival, create three-dimensional personalities for these characters. All are phenomenal dancers, but among this ensemble are some sharp comic talents, particularly the stunning Emily Fletcher as the aging diva, Sheila, and Mindy Dougherty as Val, the little firecracker who sings about the career boost she got from strategic plastic surgeries on her "orchestra and balcony." As Cassie, Hurder, a wildly curvy blonde, puts sensuality and soaring vocals into her solo, "Music and the Mirror," a song that makes her case to Zach for going back into the chorus after a failed shot at Hollywood stardom. "Use me, choose me," sings Cassie. "God, I'm a dancer; a dancer dances." And then she does, against those enormous rotating mirrors upstage.
The turning point in the show comes in the only un-musical monologue, delivered by the character Paul, who haltingly admits to the unseen Zach that he had a past as a drag performer in a less-than-respectable nightclub. Bryan Knowlton, playing the role opening night, made that moment profoundly intimate and moving—not easy to do all alone in a space as vast as the Music Hall. (The role of Paul will be played by Joey Dudding in the final week of the Dallas run.)
Learning what motivates dancers is the heart of A Chorus Line, which celebrates and eviscerates the leaping, tapping, twirling anonymous beings who make their living a few steps out of the main spotlight in big-budget musicals. Until this show, which opened in New York in the mid-1970s and ran for 15 years, nobody had ever given the chorus "kids" much of a voice.
The genesis of the show is legendary. In 1974 choreographer Michael Bennett joined a group of veteran Broadway hoofers for a series of taped workshops. Their stories morphed into the book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Bennett directed and co-choreographed the show with Bob Avian, who has directed the current tour. Baayork Lee, who played the height-challenged dancer Connie in the original Broadway production, has restaged the tour from Bennett and Avian's original choreography.
Keeping the original costume designs by Theoni V. Aldredge—remember shiny leotards?—makes this production look like a period piece. Even the dancers physically look like throwbacks to the 1970s. The women are generously proportioned, not starved stick figures, and the men are muscular but not gym-buff.
And there's the dancing, which is from an era when Bennett's lyrical sweeps and traditional tap and ballet-centered steps were on one side of Shubert Alley and Bob Fosse's snappy jazz was on the other. The hip-hop-inspired herky-jerks of TV's many dance competition shows right now could never match the work of these masters.
The only updating to this A Chorus Line seems to be the pacing of the music. "At the Ballet," "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love," three of Hamlisch's best tunes, have been sped up so much, it must be hard for the singer-dancers to get a breath between phrases.
That's about the only flaw in a production that otherwise is simply breathtaking.
There are fewer Chorus Line-size shows these days and more new ones on the tiny scale of Gutenberg! The Musical. The no-budget, two-man (plus pianist) comedy requires no costumes and no set, unless you count the cardboard box and blue plastic bin. What it does need are two funny men to play dozens of characters in a stupendously goofy musical retelling of the invention of the printing press 549 years ago.
Amphibian Stage Productions, performing at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, has a pair of guileless, immensely likable clowns in actors Stephen Balantzian and JP Matthews. They play Bud Davenport and Doug Simon, a Starbucks barista and nursing home worker who've written Gutenberg! The Musical and dream, Guffman-like, of taking it to the Great White Way. (It's their third try, having failed with Stephen King: The Musical and one about vampires.)
Performing for potential backers (us), they outline their vision. Every scene begins with some variation of "The stage is filled with doom...also fog." They jump in and out of characters identified by names ("Beef Fat Trimmer," "Old Monk") scrawled on trucker caps lined up on a shelf behind them and plopped onto their heads, sometimes four at a time.
The barebones show-about-a-show is a popular conceit right now. The Big Bang, produced twice in the past two years by Theatre Three, has two guys performing a musical history of civilization in 90 minutes. [title of show] features four friends on a bare stage writing a musical about writing a musical.
Gutenberg!, for all its silliness, pointedly sends up the wretched excesses of Les Miz and Phantom by having plague-carrying rats sing harmony and a dead baby—played by the actor wearing the cap marked "Dead Baby"—do a solo. A patter song with the lyrics "I want you deep inside me" is a tribute to biscuits. The finale is an anthem called "We Eat Our Dreams."
Balantzian and Matthews, better singers than they need to be to sell this material, strike just the right tone of dopey sincerity. Is it worth the drive west for Gutenberg! The Musical? Helvetica, yes.
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