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A Chorus Line

Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Pele Productions
The Lowry, Salford
(2010)

Production photo

1975 seems to be a popular year in Greater Manchester theatres at the moment, providing the setting for Comedians at the Octagon in Bolton and also for this new production of backstage musical A Chorus Line, created especially for The Lowry in Salford by Pele Productions.

Set in real time during the chorus dance auditions for a Broadway show in an empty theatre, choreographer Zach gets his assistant Larry to put the dancers through their paces as he tries to select just four men and four women for his chorus line. After a short while, several dancers are cut from the line-up and sent home. Those remaining are asked not just to demonstrate their dance ability but also, because some may have to act in the show, to talk about their lives, particularly their childhood years and their reasons for wanting to dance. After a punishing couple of hours, Zach makes his final selection.

The show has no particular story as it is a real slice-of-life ensemble piece consisting of a jumble of unrelated monologues, songs and scenes as these varied characters reveal themselves to Zach—who is, for most of the time, a disembodied voice from the auditorium—in their desperation to get a job. However, somehow it works. While none of the characters gets enough stage time to really grab the audience's empathy, their stories do draw you in and many are funny or sad or just fascinating.

Although the word "ensemble" is often overused by reviewers, this is undoubtedly a true ensemble show, with nineteen lead characters all on stage for almost the whole time and only one, Zach, with more to say than the others, and he is more of a catalyst to get the others to speak. Jamie Lomas is fine for most of the time as Zach, although at times he seems a little unsure in the part and his American accent wanders a little. Opposite him, Twinnie-Lee Moore is very good as Cassie, the older dancer with whom Zach has a personal, as well as professional, history and who is desperate to go back to a job in the chorus even after becoming a featured dancer as she hasn't worked for two years.

Olivia Philip has two of the best songs in "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love" and pulls them both off impressively. Andrew Ahern is Paul, who is reluctant to talk about his past in front of the others but opens the second half with a very long speech in private to Zach which is beautifully delivered in a slow, measured way. Mairi Cowieson as brash Sheila drops her barriers for a lovely trio with Emma Dalton as Bebe and Lindsey Tierney as Maggie in "At The Ballet". Jenny Gayner is very funny as the scatty, tone-deaf Kristine with good support from Oliver Tydman as her patient husband Al. Drew McOnie is impressively athletic and kicks off the personal stories well as Mike with "I Can Do That". And there are plenty more who could be mentioned in a strong cast.

Unfortunately the talent onstage is let down by many technical problems. Derek Jones's lighting design uses lots of moving lights which is flashy and anachronistic but reasonably effective, but there are some late cues from the operator. The sound is very poor with poor balance between the music and the vocalists and a harsh, tinny overall PA sound that sounds like a cheap transistor radio. There was an unforgivably late curtain that sent two of the performers flying during the big final number, just after the scene when a dancer's chances were ended by an injury.

As the TV schedules are filled with the latest trend of so-called audition shows, this show gives a much better impression of the real world of the career performer in the brutal environment of the audition room. These are not young kids looking to kick off a performing career and become TV celebrities but trained, experienced, talented performers, some of whom have worked successfully in the business for many years but still have to go through the humiliating audition process and may go for months without working at all.

The fragility of their careers is shown most strongly at two moments: when one dancer injures himself during the audition and immediately is eliminated from at least this job as he is escorted to hospital and when Zach asks them all what they will do when they can no longer dance and is greeted by an uneasy silence.

This is a rare opportunity to see this unusual but fascinating musical that, despite not focussing for long on individual characters, still gives a real insight into the lives of performers who are the bedrock of Broadway and the West End but who will never be household names, are mostly unemployed and will suddenly find that their career they have been training for since the age of four is coming to an end when they are still relatively young.

Director Simon Rawlings and choreographer Ian Meeson (assisted by Wayne Fitzsimmons who plays Zach's assistant Larry in the show) have produced a slick and natural production—it is particularly impressive when the dancers switch from rehearsal mode to dancing in perfect unison in production mode showing that these are not just actors pretending to be dancers but really talented, all-round performers—that needs some sorting out on the technical side to make it into a show well worth seeing.

Until 8th May 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton