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A Chorus Line Judi Herman is still thrilled by the 1975 musical – a fitting tribute to its composer, the late Marvin Hamlisch
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment MagazineThe Strand, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty four years. They have a newly-married son and a daughter – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier called Bertie! E-mail: judi_herman@hotmail.com  

Back in 1975 this extraordinary and ultimate backstage musical first thrilled New York audiences, starting Off Broadway after an extended devising and rehearsal period made possible by Joe Papp, and then moving to Broadway itself for a multi-award-winning run of thousands of performances and several years. By 1976 it had opened in London and Toronto and it has played all over the world, with 21st century revivals in many countries.

This first major London revival has a sad and appropriate timeliness as a tribute to its composer Marvin Hamlisch, coming just months after his death at the age of 68 in August 2012. But from the moment the curtain rises, it is actually a breath-taking and thrilling paean to talent, determination and the sheer excitement of musical theatre. And there is indeed something thrilling when the curtain rises on the huge group of hopefuls in their rainbow assortment of rehearsal clothes auditioning for a part in that chorus line. Because that number of talented, young and shapely dancers performing Michael Bennett’s exhilarating, hugely energetic choreography, restaged by Baayork Lee on an otherwise bare stage, still works as well as it did back in 1975, the year of its creation in which this revival is set.

And even though in this age of reality TV and the stars it has created we are used to the confessional that lays bare the life and soul of every contestant, there is still something slightly shocking about director Zach’s (superbly imperious John Partridge, almost like an unseen deity when he speaks unseen over the PA) insistent probing into the lives and aspirations of his short list. This is the device that frees these seventeen or so guys and gals to tell their life stories, for whether they do it gladly or grudgingly, in the end nobody holds back in case it counts against them and reduces their chances of being cast.

So we hear Mike’s familiar story of how a boy gets to join the class when his mum has to drag him along to his sisters’ ballet lessons (a story that I can attest must be one of the most common ways boys get into ballet, so many time have today’s young male dancers told me in interview that that’s how they started!). Adam Salter gets the auditions off to a great start as “can do” Mike in I Can do That. The three touching and beautifully interwoven stories of Sheila, Bebe and Maggie, who find escape and solace from difficult home lives At the Ballet, represent, like so much of A Chorus Line, a perfect combination of form and content and Daisy Maywood’s Bebe, Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie and Leigh Zimmerman’s Sheila work wonderfully together to make it both spiky and moving.

Zimmerman’s Sheila is a gorgeous combination of defiant face and vulnerability, so she is funny and touching by turns. She is also the possessor of one of the longest and most beautiful pairs of legs on any stage anywhere – and she knows what to do with them!

The stand-out solo numbers all get the terrific delivery they deserve – Rebecca Herzenhorn’s Val clearly relishes sharing the secret of her pneumatic figure – the address of her friendly plastic surgeon – in Dance: Ten, Looks: Three (also known as Tits and Ass!). And Victoria Hamilton-Barritt gives the show’s stand-out performance in the gloriously, chillingly candid Nothing, Diana’s bleak reminiscence and exposé of the impro drama class from hell at the High School for Performing Arts. She has a huge voice with a wonderfully deep full-throated quality which give a different and authentic feel to the number and makes her the ideal candidate for fronting the big “eleven o’clock” number, What I Did for Love.

Just as Diana represents the Hispanic community and the petite ball of energy that is Alexzandra Sarmiento’s Connie Wong, the Chinese community, Andy Rees’s ebullient Gregg gets to represent the Jews – and the gay community too by the way – because he is out and proud on both counts. He is certainly a fine poster boy for both – wickedly, laugh-out-loud funny.

All of these great characters and several more make up the would-be members of the final chorus line and it’s still strangely ironic to think that Zach is actually recruiting these individuals, whom the audience gets to know so well, to meld into a chorus to back “the big star”.

One of his would-be recruits is Cassie, who actually was the big star, though that was then and this is now, when she is here to take her chances in the chorus - despite, or perhaps because, she has history with Zach, once her lover. It’s perhaps a harder role to play, for Cassie is more intense, more subdued, perhaps on her way down – the spectre at the feast for the other young hopefuls. Scarlett Strallen is an extraordinarily accomplished musical performer, a fabulous dancer with a fine voice and she makes the most of Cassie and her solo number The Music and the Mirror.

And one of the best cast roles in the whole company is Alastair Postlethwaite’s Larry, Zach’s assistant, who is clearly one of the most talented and confident dancers on the stage – although it’s worth remembering that part of the great skill of all the dancers in this ridiculously talented line up is to be just as accomplished as dancers as their characters are supposed to be – and no more!
Just as the original choreography has been restaged, Tharon Musser’s original lighting design (the first production to make use of a completely computerised lighting console incidentally!) has been adapted (presumably with state-of-the-art lighting equipment) by Natasha Katz – and it still wows with its striking, almost psychedelic blend of colour washes of yellow, red, green and blue.

Veteran director Bob Avian goes back all the way to 1975 with A Chorus Line, when he collaborated with Michael Bennett on the original choreography and direction. He directs with pinpoint precision, while still allowing for the individualism and joie de vivre demanded by his onstage alter ego Zach. And if (as you should) you take on board that this production of A Chorus Line is still set in 1975, you will not be disappointed. Marvin Hamlisch would be proud of this fitting tribute.

A Chorus Line is booking at The London Palladium, 8 Argyll Street, Soho, London W1F 7TF until January 2014. For more information visit www.achoruslinelondon.com .


Related Links:

  • A Chorus Line
  • 10 Questions for Choreographer Bob Avian
  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman

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  • Judi Herman

    A Chorus Line at the London Palladium. Photo by Manuel Harlan

    James T Lane (Richie) in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium

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