Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Chorus Line

By Russ Bickerstaff
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(A touring Broadway interpretation of a police lineup)

It’s easy for me to joke about hating musicals, but I see so many of them that it’s difficult not to understand the appeal in most of them on some level. While I don’t share much of the country’s obsession with the American musical, I make every attempt to take these shows on their own merits when writing about them. That being said, the appeal of the touring Broadway musical is still kind of baffling to me. People flock to these things and spend a great deal of money on tickets and merchandise. The widespread appeal of A Chorus Line is particularly perplexing. The latest Broadway show to breeze through town lacks so many of those things that would normally draw people to shell out $20 - $68 for an experience in a venue so large that it’s immensity threatens to undermine the intimacy what makes live performance so compelling.

The production values available to an operation that charges top dollar at all the biggest theatrical venues across the country can usually impress with an elaborate set, costuming and such. A Chorus Line doesn’t really have a set. It’s set on an empty stage during an audition. The costuming consists almost entirely of mid-‘70’s leotards. While there is a certain appeal in this, I found myself getting distracted by the anatomical mechanics of singing as it showed in the diaphragms of the ensemble. . . you really don’t want to be thinking about how the singers are breathing. (You just want to hear them.) Of course, I don’t think many other people in the audience had this problem . . .

Another big draw for touring Broadway shows is the technical brilliance of usually intricate and complex choreography performed by people who have gone through the motions a million times from DC to Branson to Chicago to Appleton and so on . . . And there’s little doubting that there’s a great deal of intricacy to the choreography of A Chorus Line. All the little flaws and imperfections one would expect from an unrehearsed audition have been painstakingly choreographed . . . which is really impressive if you take the time to think about it, but not particularly interesting if you don’t. Relax and take in what’s going on and the choreography DOES tell a story, but it’s doing so with a deliberately rough feel to it all . . .

And the tension . . . the tension is just kind of exhausting if you're not particularly invested in the characters emotionally. I gues that was my problem. And maybe it’s the fact that most of the actual auditions that I’ve been to over the course of the past few years have been on the opposing side of the process—looking for the right actor for a short that I’ve written . . . and it really can be a very tedious process. A Chorus Line vividly captures some of that tedium, which probably adds to the tension for most of the audience, but for me . . . it feels more like work than you’re average summer show . . .

To the production’s credit, it lacks the overly rendered sound design—the amps and speakers and such that usually accompany a Broadway In A Box road show. Using the Marcus Center’s natural acoustics goes a long way for me . . . and it’s even kind of refreshing to hear those moments when the orchestra overpowers the vocalist . . . lets you know you’re seeing something live, even if it IS in one of the largest venues for theatre in town . . .

The will-they-or-won’t-they make it drama predates modern reality TV shows by a few decades, but it’s not terribly compelling. The dialogue is written to be more than a bit melodramatic in places and there’s really no natural way to deliver much of what's being said . . . so it has the showy kind of drama you’d expect out of a more traditional  musical  . . .only occasionally reaching for something deeper and more profound. The sad thing about that is that these moments tend to happen with just one individual on the big empty stage that is the set of the musical . . . and even sitting relatively close to one person on a big, empty stage doesn’t have the kind of intensity you might expect. The empty space positively crushes everything from any significant distance and it’s alarmingly difficult to connect up with these characters as they pour their hearts out through some very talented actors . . . 

And of course the big two songs are always a hit . . .hearing a live performance of One or What I Did For Love has a kind of electricity to it that may well be worth the ticket price for the right people. I can’t help but get the feeling that these people would appreciate local stuff a lot better than something like this. All that time and money could be better spent and more powerful, more intimate performances unique to Milwaukee. You want dance? See something edgy (and far cheaper) with Danceworks . . . or the UWM Dance Department . . . or the Milwaukee-frickin’-Ballet—one of the best in the country. You know . . . live a little. Don’t just go to a show because everyone’s heard of it . . . if only the Skylight could get the kind of audience one of these shows gets over the course of a week at the Marcus Center . . . maybe they wouldn’t be in the financial situation they’re in now . . . that’s all I’m saying . . . if you’re serious about promoting the arts, you don’t have to go to some uncomfortable little out of the way space with no air conditioning to get a headache taking in an abstract show by some DIY group only a dozen people have ever heard of . . . you don't have to see stuff like that to open yourself up to local art . . . but it couldn’t hurt. Think about it--you just spent $100 or so to see a bunch of people pretend to audition for a fake show. Is it really that much of a stretch to spend less money and fewer minutes watching someone pretend to get tied up in a chair in the interest of making a political statmenent on the other edge of summer?  

The Touring Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE runs through June 28th at the Marcus Center.

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