A Chorus Line. March 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Don’t you long for the days when Europe was somewhere ‘over there’ and didn’t really enter our consciousness from one day to the next? Yes I know that the perilous state of the wretched Euro has an impact on the British economy but one really doesn’t need the BBC to send Today programme anchors to interview random Cypriots about how many shekels they can get out of the cashpoint in Limassol on a Monday morning.

Until the economy went into meltdown, I didn’t think about Cyprus at all except the occasional flashback to an evening in Larnaca with an officer in Her Majesty’s navy. Still, the Today programme’s obsession with our continental cousins does afford the very occasional laugh. It appears the recession in Spain has spawned a new phenomenon: the flamenco flash mob who break into spontaneous, furious fandangos in random branches of Santander to protest at the austerity measures imposed by Frau Merkel. Note to self: the next time a cheque bounces I will dust off my cap, bells and whomping stick and perform a Morris dance in HSBC as fearsome as a Maori haka.

Perhaps we are oversensitive to the litany of bad news every morning because the British Ice Age persists and promises to last for at least another month. Still, the big chill does make Londoners more forgiving of fur. On Monday I was invited to a performance of A Chorus Line at the Palladium by Trevor ‘Burlington Arcade’ Pickett. Our party of four who met outside the Palladium clocked-up one sheared mink scarf, one fox fur tippet, one ocelot coat and a Diaghilev mink-collared overcoat. Fur is the only option in Siberian conditions unless one happens to have a St Bernard to hand bearing a cask of Napoleon brandy.

Have you seen A Chorus Line yet? When the show first hit Broadway in 1976 composer Marvin Hamlisch won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the production carried-off nine Tony Awards. The Palladium revival is directed by the original choreographer Bob Avian so is as close to the 70s original as it is possible to be. Whether a musical should be frozen in aspic like an Ashton ballet is an interesting question. Ordinarily I’d say don’t mess with a classic but in the case of A Chorus Line  perhaps a few judicious tweaks could have eased its passage towards 21st century audiences.

The premise of A Chorus Line is simple. A bare stage is set for a Broadway audition. It remains bare but for the occasional revolving mirror for 95% of the performance. Director Zach (John Partridge) – a voice of God off-stage for most of the production – pushes the short list of chorus kids to reveal memories from their past as part of the selection process. Why the kids are forced to reach to the bottom of their souls in order to qualify for a job in the chorus is never fully explained.

Each character steps into the spotlight in turn to tell their story though few get the opportunity to shine before the solo turns into a duet or is cut off as another character intervenes. We either hear too little or too much to really care who makes the cut. Leigh Zimmerman as the worldly-wise, brittle blonde of a certain age Sheila gets all the best lines and a strong backstory in the song At the Ballet. Without planting a spoiler, Sheila’s character is all but assassinated as the show progresses and I can’t say the audience thanks Marvin Hamlisch for doing so.

The brilliant Scarlett Strallen who recently gave a career-defining performance as Cathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain is cast as Cassie; a fallen star solo artist desperate to rejoin the line. Like Cassie, Strallen is a star rather than an ensemble player and you’re waiting what seems like forever until she gets the chance to take centre stage. When it comes, Strallen’s account of The Music and the Mirror  is indeed a singular sensation and you get the thrill of  the evening watching her dance as if her life depended on it.

There is so much talent lined-up on the Chorus Line stage and you just wished each performer was given more than the lyricist and direction allowed them to do. The stage is cleared for Victoria Hamilton-Barritt to sing Nothing: a three act play in song that needs more emotional gear shifts than Hedda Gabler. She nailed it and did a great job leading the ensemble number What I Did For Love even though I preferred that song as a solo for Cassie as it was in the film version.

The outstanding comic number Dance Ten Looks Three (aka Tits & Ass) should stop the show. This paean to the virtues of plastic surgery is given to Val (Rebecca Herszenhorn) who is gifted lyrics such as ‘tits and ass, tightened up my derriere, now you’re knocking someone’s there, keep the best of you, do the rest of you’. Irony of ironies that a song about magnificent bosoms fell so flat. Rent the movie and let Audrey Landers show you how it’s done.

That said, there are enough salty stories, big numbers and belly laughs to save A Chorus Line from being Dr Freud’s casebook with jazz hands or as my friend Lee calls it ‘Les Misêrables in legwarmers’. But if I were a producer I’d be looking at Bob Fosse’s 1979 film All That Jazz - a dark, subversive backstage Broadway musical – and wondering how to transfer its black magic to the stage. Until next time…