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A Chorus Line,' opening at Gateway, still has legs

Published: September 23, 2009

As they reel off their characters' birth dates, we realize that few in the cast of Gateway Playhouse's summer season finale were conceived by the time "A Chorus Line" transformed Broadway in 1975. The finest example of what became known as the concept musical, the late Michael Bennett's masterpiece, last revived in 2006, appears fresh - reborn - in the hands and feet of a new generation of dance "gypsies."

The concept that Bennett and his creative team turned into a hit musical is an audition for a Broadway chorus line. Seventeen compete for eight jobs - four boys, four girls.

It's not enough for director Zach, played by Kevin Neil McCready with more empathy than I recall in previous Zachs, to see them dance. He wants them to bare their souls. Zach knows some by name. Notably his former lover Cassie, who left for California to become an actress - and failed. Others, he calls by number. All 17 make an impression.

We feel a twinge at the final cut. Those who leave the deepest marks include Yamil De Jesus as Paul, whose resumé is mostly drag-queen roles at a time when that was something to hide. Vampish Sheila, played by Emily Jan Bender with an insouciant chip on her shoulder, perky Val (Melissa Manning) who couldn't land a job ("Dance: 10, Looks: 3") until she had her body and nose surgically enhanced, and Maggie (Tiffany Topol), who just wanted to dance for Daddy at ballet class, are among the women who leave us laughing, crying, or both.

As Cassie, Kiira Schmidt is at once indignant and determined as the hoofer making her last-chance comeback at the mercy of her ex-boyfriend in the song-and-dance solo "The Music and the Mirror." In "What I Did for Love," Christine LaDuca belts it out for all those who put it on the line.

Director Mitzi Hamilton, inspiration for Val (she later played her), restages Bennett's direction and choreography, accompanied by Jason Wetzel's orchestra, faithfully rendering the Marvin Hamlisch score. Why mess with a brilliant concept?

WHAT "A Chorus Line," the 1975 Broadway dance musical conceived by Michael Bennett, written by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban

WHEN | WHERE Friday night and Tuesday night at 8; Saturday at 3 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday at 2 and 8 p.m., through Oct. 11, at Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport

Gateway’s A Chorus Line an intimate, poignant performance

Published: September 24, 2009

Closing out the 2009 Broadway series, the Gateway Playhouse’s performance of A Chorus Line is truly “one singular sensation.” Equally poignant and entertaining, A Chorus Line is a must-see musical for theater fans and novices alike.

A Chorus Line tells the story of a group of musical theater actors and actresses who are desperate for work. They are auditioning for parts in a chorus line in a Broadway musical. Although many talented actors and actresses auditioned, only four girls and four boys can be a part of the chorus line. Set in 1975, the actors must divulge their life stories to Zach, the producer, as part of their audition. Zach (Kevin Neil McCready) is omnipresent as a disembodied voice in the wings, critiquing the actors and actresses.

The beauty in this play is in the intimate way the audience learns more about each character’s lives. As Zach pushes the actors and actresses out of their comfort zones, the audience learns that most of the characters have had rough childhoods and difficult familial situations. We learn about Sheila (Emily Jan Bender), a flirtatious and flippant woman who had a rough home life and found solace in dance. We learn about Paul (Yamil De Jesus), who struggled with hiding his sexuality from his parents and performed in a drag show at 15. In one of the most revealing moments within the play, as Paul is telling his story, he breaks down in tears in front of Zach and is comforted by the producer. In one of the more pivotal dance numbers, we also meet Cassie (Kiira Schmidt), who is back on the audition circuit after taking time off from performing on Broadway. Zach surprises Cassie by informing her that she doesn’t belong because she’s a stellar performer, but Cassie tries to prove herself and her passion for dance in the high-energy number “The Music and the Mirror.” Although the play is set over 30 years ago, many of the recurring themes (sexuality, family issues, growing up) transcend the test of time.

The cast in A Chorus Line has great chemistry, although, when in character, they convey that uncertainty and discomfort that most actors feel around one another at first when auditioning for big parts. There were many show-stopping numbers in this performance, most notably “What I Did for Love” performed by Christine LaDuca as Diana and the cast of the show. “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” was also a high-energy number where the cast performed montages about coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Stellar performances by all, especially by Gateway veteran Mary Giattino as the tone-deaf Kristine, and Melissa Manning as the surgically-enhanced dancer Val. Mitzi Hamilton, Paul Allan, and the team at Gateway really outdid themselves in creating the mood and atmosphere of a theater audition.

With great music and a talented cast, A Chorus Line is a show you don’t want to miss. A Chorus Line is playing at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport through Oct. 11.
A Chorus Line - Gateway Playhouse at Bellport

By Roy Bradbrook.
Published: September 23rd, 2009

What a wonderful way to end the season - ‘Bravo’ to all at Gateway Playhouse for reminding us just what a Broadway musical should be. You will go away after the show, not simply with memories of exciting dance and great melodies but also with the added poignancy of having glimpsed a small part of the back stage world of the theater that we, the audience. rarely see or even think about. The show follows the experiences of a motley group of nineteen male and female dancers undergoing a stringent audition for a final cast of eight. The demanding producer, Zach (Kevin Neil McCready), spends a lot of the show as a disembodied voice from the seats as he puts the dancers through their physical and mental paces, while he endeavors to select the group that he believes will work best together in his show. The opening ensemble number ‘I Hope I Get It’ vividly brings to life the insecurity and worries of theatrical life. Most of the dancers are experienced in their craft and all are desperate for a job, none more so than Cassie (Kiira Schmidt) whose short foray into semi-stardom has fizzled out. The scenes between Cassie and Zach (who happens to be her former lover) are vibrant with emotions as she tries to convince him that she really is serious about going back to the chorus.

As the show progresses, we get to learn more about them as individuals. Sheila (Emily Jane Bender) comes over as flippant until we find out how dance was a relief at a very young age from her troubled family life. Bebe (Lauryn Ciardullo) grew up feeling plain looking and Maggie (Tiffany Topol) never knew her father. The trio combine in the soulful ballad, ‘At The Ballet’, which explains how ballet made them feel beautiful and wanted, so different from their real lives.

Each of the dancers has their problems and foibles and Zach is merciless in breaking them down. Several are gay and you have to put this in context and remember that the show is set in 1975 and was produced in that year and attitudes, even in the theater, were much different from today, The prime example of this comes from Paul who, left alone on stage with Zach, breaks down as he confesses his terrible experiences growing up because of this sexuality.

The fragility and instability of a dancer’s career come alive when Paul falls and badly damages a knee as the dancers go through their steps and has to be taken to hospital. This tense scene is further strengthened in emotion as Zach presses the dancers to consider what they will do when they can no longer dance professionally. In one of the show’s highlight songs, ’What I Did For Love’, Diana (Christine Laduca), a dancer who always has had problems acting, spells out , with the rest of the cast their belief that whatever the future will bring, they will never regret what they set out to do.

Finally, eight are chosen and they start to rehearse their show number, the iconic ‘One Singular Sensation’ and then, in the finale of the show, all of the original nineteen file on stage in matching top hats and spangled costumes that hide their individuality and replace it with the homogeneity of a true ‘Chorus Line’, a line where true perfection come from moving as one and where there are no standouts or stars - something very true of this production because there are no individual stars but each and everyone of the artists deserve to have their names writ large in lights because they provided the opening night audience with so very many pleasurable multiple sensations of their auditory, visual and emotional systems.

This is a show that requires split second timing for both dance and voice and all the performers were immaculate throughout; a great achievement considering the very short rehearsal times Gateway is able to allow. All of those involved in this production, onstage and backstage deserve congratulations and more importantly a complete sell out of this show that runs until October 11th. It is very likely that we will return to see it again and that is not something we very often do - it is that good!
'A Chorus Line' for the ages at Gateway

Published: September 22, 2009

The ghost of Michael Bennett, bitching and prodding and praising, is, for the third time, stalking the stage of the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport.

For the third time in three decades, this remarkable temple of terrific theater is presenting an inspired and inspiring production of Michael Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s immortal ode to Broadway dance, “A Chorus Line.” The 1989 Gateway production was directed and choreographed by Bobby Longbottom, on his way to Broadway; Mitzi Hamilton, who originated the role of Val in the original “Chorus Line,” created the 1999 production and returns in 2009 for the latest edition.

In each case, and particularly in the present one, the directors/choreographers have re-created, down to the smallest delivery, gesture, pause and dance, the original Michael Bennett staging. But more, the spirit, the electrifying essence of the show, has been transported whole and in gratifying depth to the Bellport stage.

The best musical about a musical ever written, and one of the three or four best musicals of all time, “A Chorus Line” is to the musical theater what “Casablanca” is to the screen. See it two or a score or a hundred times, know the dialogue word for word, the songs note for note and the dances move for move, and it still excites you and exhilarates you, breaks your heart, tingles your spine, and brings tears to your eyes as it does the first time around.

“A Chorus Line,” whose original cast members performed their own autobiographies, taped over a long period of time by Michael Bennett and James Kirkwood, was written about theater, and that’s the only place to experience it. And, believe me, the moving and electrifying production in Bellport is an experience not to miss. Once again, casting director Robin Joy Allan has assembled a cast without a whisper of weakness. Besides being spectacular dancers, this cast, to a person, sings gorgeously, thanks to the impeccable, true-to-every-nuance musical direction of Jason Wetzel, and to the talent with whom he’s worked.

Present in the cast is Bellport native Mary Giattino, who was barely a teenager when she did the role of Bebe in the 1989 Gateway production. In 2009, she’s a card-carrying Equity veteran with Broadway credits, which she demonstrates mightily as Kristine, the dancer who can’t sing.

Kevin Neil McCready is a strong Zack, the Michael Bennett character who becomes a ghostly voice from the back of the audience as the audition that is the spine of the plot unfolds. Jonathan Hoover gets the solo proceedings off to a flying start with his “I Can Do That,” and Melissa Manning nails “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” for all its comic worth. The striking Emily Jan Binder, as the worldly but not worn Sheila, progresses from comic cynic to—with Tiffany Topol and Lauren Ciardullo—deliver a glorious “At the Ballet,” and Yamil De Jesus delivers Paul’s long confessional movingly.

The dynamic “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” montage/crescendo is turned roof raising at its climax by the explosive, high-flying performance of Donald C. Shorter Jr. as Richie.

As Diana, the Puerto Rican dancer from the Bronx (“It’s uptown and to the right”), dynamic Christine DeLuca delivers “Nothing,” the comic/dramatic dig at Method teaching, with fine finesse, and raises the show’s already stratospheric emotional level with her rendition of “What I Did for Love.”

The role of Cassie, the original, unsparing self-portrait of Donna McKechnie, is danced and sung thrillingly by Kira Schmidt, who makes, as it should be but rarely is, “The Music and the Mirror” a shattering, exhausting 11 o’clock number.

And the most intoxicating finale/bows sequence ever staged is wonderful enough in Bellport to send any audience into cheers.

My strong advice is, no matter how many times you’ve seen “A Chorus Line,” to see this one. You won’t easily forget it.

“A Chorus Line” continues every evening except Monday with numerous matinees through October 11 at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, 20 minutes west of Westhampton. The box office number is 286-1133.