The cast of A Chorus Line at The Lyric.
The cast of A Chorus Line at The Lyric.

By Manning Harris

Atlanta Lyric Theatre is presenting a powerful version of the legendary musical “A Chorus Line,” running through November.

“A Chorus Line.” In 1975 those were the most exciting words in the entertainment world, just as “Hamilton” is now. In fact, the two Broadway megahits have a lot in common: Both were watersheds in theatre history, winning every award in sight, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Both were/are impossible to get tickets for. When “A Chorus Line” opened Off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theatre, the worlds of theatre and dance went crazy. This was their story (as you’ll see), and everyone who was anyone fought to get a ticket. I remember reading that Katharine Hepburn and Diana Ross were allowed to sit in the aisles because the show sold out instantly, and they had to see it.

When the show moved to Broadway in July of 1975, the tumult continued and magnified; and yours truly pulled one of the great coups of my theatre-going career by copping a single ticket for a Saturday matinee in August (I was very young, of course); thus I saw the original cast. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such electricity in a theatre. It was an original work of art; nobody had ever seen anything like it. When it was over, blissed-out strangers looked at one another and smiled, tears running down many faces.

I saw the show four more times on Broadway; it ran for 15 years (a record at the time). You might say I was and am a fan.

So what’s it about? The New Yorker Magazine, which prides itself on its pithy summations of shows currently running, said: “Seventeen dancers audition for a Broadway show and by the end of the evening we know everything about all of them.”

Ashley Chasteen as Cassie in A Chorus Line.

Okay, that’s a bit too pat, although it’s the bare bones truth. The great triumph of “A Chorus Line” is that it’s ultimately not about dancers at all. They’re just the convenient metaphor. The show is about anyone who has ever put him/herself on the line in following one’s passion, and hopefully getting paid for it.

If this were not true, thousands of people would not have raced to see it, because let’s face it: Most people in this country do not have an abiding passion for dance. Likewise, most people are not dancers; however, most people have applied for a job—sometimes one they desperately wanted. And we all can identify with the pain of rejection, as well as the joy of being accepted.

There’s much more I could say about the creation of “A Chorus Line,” but it’s time to sing the praises of Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s superb production. By the way, if you think you’ve seen the show if you saw the misbegotten 1985 film version, you’re mistaken. The film was ill-conceived in almost every way (the performers are good); maybe one day a great film will be made. Or “A Chorus Line” may be one of these birds you can only catch live; I’ve often thought that.

Zach (Logan Denninghoff) is the all-powerful director/choreographer who must choose only four boys and four girls (that’s what the dancers are called) after first whittling a stageful of dancers to only 17. Think about that. Only eight people will be hired, everyone knows it, yet everyone is sweating blood, sweat, and tears to get hired. That’s following your passion.

Zach used to have a girlfriend named Cassie (Ashley Chasteen) who was a star dancer but left to try her luck in Hollywood. Now she’s back and needs a job, and Zach seems distracted by her presence and a little angry. It’s as though her “failure” in Hollywood reflects personally on him; she was his protégée, not only his lover.

But when Cassie stands alone onstage in front of a mirror to plead for a chance and sings and dances “The Music and the Mirror,” it’s a showstopping moment. The song starts small and soft and then builds and builds as Cassie becomes the joy and ecstasy of all art realized. It’s a long number, it’s goose bump time, and yours truly teared up big time. I remember when I saw this number for the first time with the original cast, it was as if a miracle had occurred. Ms. Chasteen is beautiful and brilliant; she shows us that this magnificence is possible, and the reason the dancers go through what they do.

The finale of A Chorus Line.

Let me say that the pit orchestra in the Lyric’s show is as good as I’ve heard anywhere; bravo to them and to Paul Tate, music director and conductor. More kudos to choreographer Nathan Lubeck and to director Ricardo Aponte; this is his finest work to date.

I wish I could tell you more of the individual stories that are revealed, such as those of Sheila (Allison McDowell), Mike (J. Koby Parker), Val (Lauren Watkins), Richie (Elijah Avraham), Diana (Chani Maisonet), Bebe (Brittany Ellis), Maggie (Cassandra Hlong), and Paul (Alvaro Francisco, a particularly poignant performance—another bravo).

Also in this fine cast: Jordan Keyon Smith, Cansler McGhee, Amanda Bonilla, D. J. Grooms, Nathan Lubeck, Kiley Washington, Fenner Eaddy, Bonnie Harris, and Zion Newton.

You know some of the songs, especially “What I Did for Love,” sung at an almost unbearably tense moment when the cast selections are about to be made. By this time you have probably identified with several of the characters; so it becomes your own life on the line; can you take it?

And I can’t tell you about the cathartic, surprise ending; if you’ve never seen ACL, I envy you.

The original Broadway direction and choreography were by Michael Bennett; music, Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics, Edward Kleban; book, James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante.

One small note: many of the singers here have nice big voices; this is one of the rare cases where the vocals occasionally are almost too loud due to excess amplification. This is a problem sound designer John McKenzie will soon rectify.

So you want to know: Is it as good as the original? Well, they say nothing beats the high of a first time, and that’s true here. Much of the script is based on the lives of the people who first played these parts. Oh yes, we’d better say that this musical play is rated R; that’s because it deals with real life happenings, like sexual awakenings.

The show was razor sharp on opening night; but I would say it will get even better. It’s a completely professional rendering of an authentic Broadway legend.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.