There is no doubt in my mind that Michael Bennett was one of the greatest directors of musical theatre ever. He was a really good, even brilliant choreographer, but his directorial and dramaturgical intelligence is truly what made A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls things of theatre legend. Bennett possessed an unerring sense of how to tell a story with brisk economy and a profound gift for finding simple physicalizations for complex ideas. There is many a director-choreographer today that would like to think that they are Bennett’s equal, but the truth is that the very best barely come close.
Bennett may not have been the person who came up with the germ of the idea that became A Chorus Line (there have been lawsuits about the matter) – but there’s no question that he’s the reason it took the exciting, touching and profoundly expressive shape that made it the show that saved Broadway. Set during an audition for a mid-1970s Broadway show, A Chorus Line shines a light on the memories, dreams and fears of dancers vying for a place on a very small chorus line – only four dancers of each sex. Bennett’s imprint on A Chorus Line is so strong that most successful major productions have been reconstructions of his work by people involved in the original. In the case of the new Paper Mill Playhouse production that person is director-choreographer Mitzi Hamilton, a member of the workshops that led to A Chorus Line; she’s the basis for Val, the character who sings about “tits and ass” in “Dance 10, Looks 3”.
Hamilton has certainly put together one of the better acted and sung productions of the show I’ve seen. Gabrielle Ruiz sings “What I Did for Love” as beautifully as I’ve heard it done, and J. Manuel Santos gives the show’s crowning monologue, about a young drag queen and his family, as much depth and shape as I’ve ever seen it given. It’s a monster of a monologue, and as terrific as Santos is, I’ve yet to see an actor hit every moment in it.
Perhaps best of all, however, is Rachelle Rak as the very adult, smart and sexy Sheila. The role fits her like a glove, and there isn’t a moment, note or step of the role that she doesn’t hit full-on – sheer perfection. All in all, this is a stunningly solid version of a stunningly solid show, and surely not to be missed.
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