One Singularly Sensational ‘Chorus Line’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

Photo: Kasey Ivan.

By John Dwyer

“A Chorus Line” is arguably the most important musical of a generation.

In the lexicon of musicals it has a special place for a variety of reasons. It was one of the first shows whose book was based on the true stories of the actors who were cast, and those stories were workshopped into its present form. This organic approach to storytelling was unique and innovative. The honesty of the script, especially in the original production whose cast had actually lived the lives of the characters they played, came across the footlights and created an electric feeling in the audience that most theatergoers had never experienced before. And the entire set was pretty much empty, just as it would have been for an actual audition, which is the basis for the story. It was storytelling at it most basic and its most exciting.

The movie was a failure, as it is uniquely a theater piece and dependent on real people baring themselves on a bare stage, which is a situation uniquely suited for the the theater. In 1976, “A Chorus Line” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Photo: Kasey Ivan.

As it involves professional dancers vying for eight positions in a Broadway show, it is one that many companies would take on with some trepidation. And my initial thought was this was going to be a production that would overwhelm Music Mountain Theatre with its mix of professional, non-professional and student actors. But to the contrary, what has happened is that the story line becomes re-examined and more relevant to the theatergoer, as the comparison to average lives is enhanced. Yes, some people on the line would, at a glance, never be at a Broadway dance audition. But, then again, we have all seen the “American Idol” auditions and know that people try to succeed, regardless of what may appear to be an obvious outcome to anyone. And that is part of what makes this production work. All participants believe in what they are doing. Their earnestness is real, as they all try to be a part of the line.

Kudos to director Louis Palena and to the ensemble. The acting, regardless of any chorus boy doing the best jette, is spot on and engages the entire audience in the hopes and aspirations of 20-somethings, and one’s 30s and 40s, when the harsher realities of life can hit. The chorus line and the production line are not dissimilar, but one seems more glamorous, albeit with a shorter shelf life.

There are many standouts in this strong ensemble, like the seemingly streetwise Val, played wonderfully by Erin Wurtz, who gets to sing “Dance Ten, Looks Three, ” and Karl Wiegand, who gives an honest and heart-wrenching monologue as Paul, and an embarrassingly hilarious moment by Tom Mullin concerning puberty.

Jamie Geddes, coming off another super performance as Peggy Sawyer in “42nd Street,” gives a stellar performance as Cassie, a lead dancer who wants to go back to the chorus. Jill Palena, a regular at MMT, was born to play Diana and does a great job with two of the best songs of the show, “Nothing” and “What I Did for Love.” There are so many truly fine moments owned by the different cast members that this review would go on too long if mentioned.

The show has specifics to which every production must adhere. It was originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. This show catapulted him into the spotlight, along with song writer Marvin Hamlish and others. For Music Mountain, the staging and choreography were faithfully executed by Palena, assistant director Ed Honan, and assistant choreographers Jill Palena, Sharon Rudda and Marley Madding. The costumes, which also are iconic to this show, were done by Jordan Brennan, who considering his dance background, also gave an assist with the dance.

The penultimate song in the show, prior to the show-stopping 11 o’clock number “One,” is “What I Did for Love.” This could be said to be the core belief of this theater company and this tight ensemble, as well. “A Chorus Line” at Music Mountain Theatre is a legendary show that should be seen. It inspires, as does this dedicated group of actors and this theater troupe.

Shows continue through March 18, and tickets can be purchased online.

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