A Chorus Line

Conceived by Michael Bennett, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban
London Palladium

A Chorus Line Credit: Manuel Harlan
A Chorus Line Credit: Manuel Harlan
A Chorus Line Credit: Manuel Harlan

A Chorus Line is a kind of meta-musical that spends two hours exploring the obsession that musical theatre performers have for their medium.

The story comes over as a kind of cross between any number of instructional books on how to get on in musicals (or possibly persuade the callow that this harsh career is not for them) and a verbatim drama looking into the lives of 17 aspiring members of a Broadway chorus line, of whom over half will eventually have to face the devastating news of continued unemployment.

First time around, commencing in 1975 and lasting for 15 triumphant years, it became the longest-running production in Broadway history. This is the first London revival since the original production in 1976 and must be very different from the show's roots in a plain black box at Manhattan's low-key but high-quality Public Theater.

Now, director Bob Avian, who originally co-choreographed the musical with its inspiration, Michael Bennett, has teamed up with fresh choreographer Baayork Lee (who appeared in the original Broadway production) to overwhelm the story with song and dance, which should appeal to the kind of international audiences who love to flock to the Palladium.

The real achievement of this musical is its ability to convey the authentic experience of working on minimum wage on a chorus line, which for many of its members will be the peak of their artistic careers. The whole of life is here, straight and gay, rich and poor, assertive and terrified, intelligent and dumb.

The obsession and desperation shine through equally as we hear of the histories and aspirations detailed by so many different characters. At its best, this is then attached to highly personal song and dance routines that complement the stories.

Every one of the 19 actors who play those that makes the first cut, plus their choreographer and his assistant are highly-trained performers who make up an impeccably drilled ensemble but each also gets a chance to shine.

Inevitably, the big names will come out on top but in much smaller roles and usually relying on comic pathos, the likes of Frances Dee playing Khristine amusingly demonstrates a complete inability to sing, Gary Wood as bullied Paul, Andy Rees as proud Greg and Rebecca Herszenhorn playing tarty Val all make strong impressions, the last-named while loudly celebrating her "tits and ass".

In a company that tends to be stronger on song and dance than acting, the towering Leigh Zimmerman playing self-confident Sheila inevitably stands out for her comic skills, while no slouch at the other two facets. Victoria Hamilton-Barrett sings as well as anybody in the part of Puerto Rican Diana.

However, nobody can match the multiple talents of Scarlett Strallen, who demonstrates why her character Cassie has the star quality which means that she should never have been reduced to auditioning for the anonymity of the chorus line. In a dress to match her name, the actress gets the most phenomenal dance routine that almost brought the opening night house down accompanying "The Music and the Mirror" and this will long live in the memory.

Of the songs, "One", which is reprised frequently, is probably the catchiest although the opening number, "I Hope I Get It", sets the tone perfectly.

While the collective portrait of life backstage is carefully and cleverly built up, there is little in the way of a plot beyond the movement towards success or failure in the Broadway stakes.

Ultimately therefore, this production seems to be more concentrated on the song and dance so that it is fans of Marvin Hamlisch's powerful mid-70s music and the chorus line choreography built around it that will make or break this Palladium revival.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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