Sunday, June 17, 2012

Theatre review: "A Chorus Line" from Pittsburgh CLO. Sunday, 17th June 2012

After opening the new season with a fine road company production, Pittsburgh CLO has now kicked off its series of home-grown shows with a dazzling, superb version of A Chorus Line. Director/choreographer Baayork Lee and her cast bring out all the vitality, passion and depth put there by originator Michael Bennett. You can see and hear why it got nine Tonys in 1976 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama that year.

This experience will remind you of the inventiveness and originality of Bennett’s dance-based concept. Starting out big and bold, without preamble or introduction, you are thrust into what goes on behind the scenes of creating Broadway musicals, the hard work, the anxieties and the passions. From there on, that emotional, compelling connection grabs you and holds you.

Marvin Hamlisch wrote dynamic, melodically special music and Edward Kleban created trenchant, substantial lyrics. Equally, Bennett’s script eloquently tells about what it means to try to make a living as a professional performer. His device doesn’t replicate reality; he dwells on life stories unlikely elicited by the director, intensely interviewing potential ensemble members. But, in telling about life backstage, Bennett reminds anyone who’s ever been in a theatre audience that everyone in a chorus is a living, breathing individual. Especially bringing that home, the big, famous final song “One, ” although ostensibly about the star of a musical to be supported by the chorus, equally refers to how all these separate personalities are melded into one singular sensation.

Standing most front and center, Bryan Knowlton gives sweet depth and truth to the role of Paul, a one-time member of a drag cabaret act, who had been worried about his family’s reaction. Here director Lee underscores the poignant intensity by having Paul remain in one spot, vulnerable and focused. As Shiela, Emily Fletcher likewise comes across well-defined. She’s the character who reveals that life in ballet was more beautiful than anything in her unhappy home. And Gabrielle Ruiz’s version of Puerto Rican Diana equals them in looking and sounding special.

Point Park grad Nadine Isenegger has the central role of Cassie, a veteran performer who seemed headed for stardom and, for a while, was the lover of the new musical’s director Zach. When I attended, she danced her one big solo number supremely, but her singing didn’t equal that quality.

Pittsburgh’s Gina Philistine has the less noticeable role of “Bebe.” Connor McRory as “Roy”is a former Pittsburgh CLO Academy student. Other Point Park grads are Callan Bergmann (“Butch”) Chandler Farren (“Trisha”), Justin Lonesome (“Tom”) and Gabriella Sorrentino (“Lois”).

And of course, many people in this city know the name and talent of composer Hamlisch, long the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Prinicipal Pops Conductor.

It is less likely, though, that people are equally aware about lyricist Edward Kleban. Well, audiences won’t learn anything about him in the CLO program book, which, as in the past, devotes an entire page to executive producer Van Kaplan but not even one line to the creators of the product from which his company profits.

So, some info: Four years after Kleban’s debut in this landmark, a one-woman Phyllis Newman show, The Madwoman of Central Park West featured a few of his tunes and his lyrics. He also worked at Columbia Records for several years producing Igor Stravinsky and Percy Faith albums as well as one of the Off-Broadway musical Now Is the Time for All Good Men. This and more you can read at Wikipedia.

I know I often bring up the issue of such program book oversights. And I’m sure that CLO is neither likely to care about that nor about my opinion. But, some day, someone really influential will be concerned enough to remind local producers how their professionalism is compromised when they make it look as if they don’t care about the artists whose work they offer and remind those same producers that they also look as if they think audiences aren't smart enough to care.

This otherwise marvelous production of A Chorus Line continues through June 24th at 2pm. Tickets at, or 412/456-6666 or at the Box Office at Theater Square.

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