No one corrals a chorus better than Donna Feore.
In recent seasons at the Stratford Festival, the dancer turned choreographer turned director has demanded and received precise, impressive work from her ensembles in shows from Fiddler on the Roof to Crazy for You to The Sound of Music.
So it makes sense that Feore would now turn to a musical whose subject is her seeming obsession: A Chorus Line.
In this 1975 musical, originally conceived and directed by Michael Bennett, a director named Zach (Juan Chioran, perfectly cast) is auditioning dancers for a new Broadway musical. Seventeen are up for the roles, but Zach needs only four "girls" and four "boys." In order to make the cut, he asks those who want a place in the line to put themselves on the line – by telling personal stories.
Not everyone is enthusiastic, most are nervous, but all participate in the exposing exercise because, as they sing, "I really need this job. Please, God, I need this job."
Over the course of interwoven testimonials and songs, we learn real names and stage names, actual ages and pretend ones – and even discover which of the dancers' body parts they were born with and which have been bought.
A Chorus Line presents us with a paradox: The more we learn about the dancers, the more we see what they have in common – unhappy families, claustrophobic small towns, liberating ballet classes. They all were once adolescents afraid of growing up – and are all now adults afraid of getting old and their bodies/instruments failing them. Maybe the chorus line is reality – and individualism is the real lie.
If I were forced to pick my favourite girls and boys from the cast Feore has assembled, these would be my final four:
For comedy, it's hard to beat Julia McLellan as Val – a dancer who gets plastic surgery after discovering that she has been judged as Dance: Ten; Looks: Three. Her number about her enhancements brings down the house, upending sexist expectations by satirically embracing them.
Colton Curtis is almost as funny and even more endearing as Mark, the youngest dancer. With great flair, he shares a story about having his first wet dream – and becoming convinced that he had gonorrhea after looking up "milky discharge" in a medical textbook.
The most touching monologue comes from Paul, who talks about performing in drag shows when he was a teenager and one day being found out by his parents. After all the frenetic movement of the production, Conor Scully wins over the audience with near-perfect stillness.
Doing as much with less material is Ayrin Mackie as Sheila, a dancer turning 30 – or thereabouts. Mackie is consistently poignant in the part, showing us the poses of a showbiz veteran and the vulnerability beneath her at once.
McLellan, Curtis and Scully are making their debuts at Stratford. Mackie is perhaps the person this show is about: She has been in four musicals over three seasons at Stratford, and I never noticed her before. There is more talent in this world than there is space to acknowledge or money to reward.
What astonishes about Feore's production is how intricately the dance is acted. Watching errors be ironed out, eccentricities emerge and then be tamed by Zach is disorienting to your sense of what a physical performance really is.
The acting is less entirely convincing, especially from actors assigned particular American accents. As Cassie, an older dancer trying to rejoin the chorus, Dayna Tietzen left me cold when not dancing – but then again, her scenes with her old flame Zach seem so written compared with the testimonials of the dancers based, sometimes verbatim, on actual conversations with dancers. (The writers are James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.)
What's unique about the Stratford production of A Chorus Line is that Feore has staged in it the Festival Theatre, which has a thrust stage; it's a space that is antithetical to straight lines.
Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco has expanded that thrust into an apron to accommodate the possibilities and try to fit this square peg into a round hole. Instead of a single mirror at the back, there is one divided into six rotating parts, sending out glimpses of backsides to all corners.
I can't speak for other angles, but it looked great from where I was sitting, right in the centre with all the other critics, directly between the actors and Zach (who sits at the back of the orchestra level, out of the view of those on the balcony). The concessions in Feore's staging made for the sake of sight lines at the side do come at a cost of the illusion that these are actors auditioning for, rather than putting on, a show.
Another notable aspect of Feore's production is how warm-hearted it is. Even Zach doesn't seem that tyrannical here. The final number ("One singular sensation, every little step she takes") loses a bit of its edge because of this, becoming more of a celebration of the individuals in the show than the ironic comment on individualism.
I can't not mention Laura Burton's band, hidden up and behind the stage, doing extraordinary work with Marvin Hamlisch's brilliant score; the big brass section, in particular, kills it.
There are few theatres in the world, including on Broadway, where you get this full orchestra experience these days. Some enterprising artists really should create a work about an orchestra similar to A Chorus Line – this sound is endangered now the way that Broadway in general seemed back in 1975.
A Chorus Line continues at Stratford's Festival Theatre to Oct. 30 (stratfordfestival.ca).