The Reagle Players celebrated the remodeling of their ambitious musical theatre program's home at Robinson Theatre in Waltham High School with a five performance revival of the Ultimate Backstage Musical, "A Chorus Line". Most of the Robinson remodeling was to the cramped backstage facilities, so what appeared on stage was a "typical" Reagle show, performed by a mixture of seasoned Equity professionals and talented, trained, and experienced amateurs and aspiring youngsters still in or recently graduated from theatre schools. This is the 4th time Reagle has done "A Chorus Line" -- probably because this show speaks to the Reagle Players' core, which is a devotion to the Broadway musical coupled with a passionate determination to prove that people who have learned the requisite skills can participate in this great American art form at the highest level without being professionals. Artistic director Bob Eagle and his Players aspire to be "as good as" not "better than" or "different from" the shows they revive. Sometimes they are in fact better than the originals -- but that's because sometimes the originals bollixed up, not because the Reagle remount has a radically new vision. I didn't see what Reagle "Did for Love" in any of the 3 earlier stagings, but the 2002 "A Chorus Line" is in most respects at least "as good as" the Broadway version I saw when the show's confessional concept was new -- which is very good indeed. The only thing missing is the shock of that newness, and that first time excitement is replaced by the excitement of seeing familiar faces, neighbors, on stage holding their own with performers whose successful careers are listed in the program.
Laurie Gamache, who took over the star role of Cassie toward the end of "A Chorus Line"'s Broadway run, recreates both her Cassie and Michael Bennett's direction/choreography. Bennett, the dancer who expanded his own roles from chorus boy to choreographer-psychologist-facilitator-exploiter-showwright-genius, conceived and workshopped the piece at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, and incorporated part of that creative process as the substitute for a traditional plot in his show. "A Chorus Line" is an evening-long audition, during which the director Zach, played at Reagle by Russell Garrett, puts a final group picked out of the hundreds of dancers who try out for a new Broadway musical through paces designed to eliminate all but eight of them. In the Reagle version, Zack isn't just a disembodied voice coming over a loudspeaker, but a choreographer who comes on stage along with his dance captain to teach the auditionees a routine which they will dance in small groups while responding to their instructors' criticism.
Zach also interviews the dancers from "out front," via that intimidating loudspeaker, putting them individually on the spot with personal questions, ostensibly because "the ones we hire will have to be able to say a few lines." In fact, the interviews, adapted from the autobiographical narratives of the originating chorus members, are the heart of the show. We are getting to know the dancers, learning to understand what dancing means to them, and rooting for our favorites in the competition for a spot in the chorus and a professional contract. My favorites included Bill Nagle's Mike, Susan Chebookian's' Connie, and of course Gamache's dazzling Cassie, determined to prove that she's qualified but not overqualified. But all the performers on the Reagle stage made a case for themselves as qualified: if not for Zack's chorus, certainly for the audience's admiration.
After several opportunities to stand out and yet fit in, eight of the dancers get the jobs that all of them are qualified for and every one of them desperately wants. "When and why did you decide to be a dancer?" Zach asked. Deciding to be a dancer isn't as easy as dancing: to be a dancer you have to have a stage, and music and light and an audience. "Being a dancer" for the original Chorus Line performers seems mostly to have been about finding an identity within a new group after discovering that the identity peers and/or family expect them to assume is a bad fit. Inspired by the dancing that they saw on television or in the movies or at the ballet they set out to win approval first from teachers and then from a choreographer and finally from an audience. All the Players are familiar with this challenge, and rising to it, bring the Waltham audience to its feet after they come back in full force and glittering costumes to prove that they've mastered the complex unison choreography with which the backup line celebrates the magic of the "One", the singular Star. But their togetherness is the star, and our applause is not just for the skill we see in front of us, but for "everyone who has ever danced".
Applause, too, for Jennifer Simon's skillful lighting that tamed the mirrors and Andrew Fournier's sound -- perhaps the remodeling helped banished some dead spots? I'm afraid I don't think that "A Chorus Line" really deserves Robert Rucinski's full orchestra: an on stage rehearsal piano is realistic, and some augmentation by clever electronics would serve to fill out the fantasy of glamour, as far as I'm concerned. But the Marvin Hamlisch score had an orchestra on Broadway, so it has an orchestra in Waltham, and we have the added luxury. June and the Reagle's regular summer season is right around the corner, with "Damn Yankees" Annie Get Your Gun" and "Singin' in the Rain" scheduled. I wonder if I'm the only person in the world who secretly wishes it were possible to re-create the spectacular original choreography of "I'm An Indian, Too?" Sure, it celebrates a goofy Hollywood version of Native Americans, and it is generally condemned as offensive. But when I saw it as a kid, it seemed to be about the most astonishingly wonderful dancing I'd ever imagined. Now that I supposedly know better, I'd still love to see it again -- just in case what I know now should turn out to be wrong.