The cast of A Chorus Line
(© Paul Kolnik)
The cast of A Chorus Line
(© Paul Kolnik)
No sooner was the revival of the landmark 1975 musical A Chorus Line announced than the bickering began. Up for argument has been everything from the property's potential staleness to the fairness of the royalties for the dancers whose stories provided the show's raw material. Differing opinions have been aired on the pertinence of "What I Did for Love" and the significance of the number 17 on the shirt of the musical's assistant choreographer. Well, the opening night curtain is up, and the show's vibrancy knocks most of the palaver into a cocked hat -- or, better yet, into one of the still-magnificent finale's top hats.

Immediately called for in discussing this revival, which has been lovingly and painstakingly overseen by original co-choreographer Bob Avian, is an assessment of the staleness issue. Granted, references to Robert Goulet, Troy Donahue, and Jill St. John stick out during this Lindsay Lohan age, but they're minor details in a script dealing with an issue that's both universal and timeless: putting your life on the line for work. The number of times some form of the phrase "I need this job" is expressed in the show explains why audiences during the show's original 15-year Broadway run responded viscerally to the property's underlying message -- and are likely to do so again in 2006 (when job security is less assured than it was 30 years ago).

The show's creator Michael Bennett, a lively and magnetic dancer himself, was concerned about his fellow dancers' checkered experiences. But he also used that concern both to honor the gypsies with whom he had long toiled and to get down and dirty about something far larger and more reverberant than the ramifications of one particular career choice. Bennett's drive to pursue the notion of putting one's life on the line means that the literal tape stretching across the downstage area is a visual pun. The need to keep that tape intact should lay to rest any notion of revising the show's staging. Not to equate Bennett and book writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante with Samuel Beckett, but just as Beckett insists on a specific look for Waiting for Godot, so Bennett demands a specific look for A Chorus Line. If this suggests hubris, so be it. As is well understood by Avian and original cast member Baayork Lee -- now and for three decades the show's re-stager -- anyone tinkering with this show does so at his or her peril.

The question remains: Does this line of thinking brand the classic show, again seen in Robin Wagner's economical set design and Theoni V. Aldredge's audition togs, as a museum piece? Not as long as the dancer-singer-actors playing the roles slap anxious, jubilant life into Bennett's electric dances, the script's idiosyncratic lines, and the appealing Marvin Hamlisch-Ed Kleban songs (which were ingeniously shaped from the dancers' own life stories).

Beginning with Charlotte d'Amboise, as a properly anguished Cassie, the ensemble of otherwise largely new faces generally passes muster. Deidre Goodwin gives 30-year-old Sheila's quips the arched eyebrow and hitched hip they require. Jason Tam dances with style and touchingly confides Paul's drag-queen past. Natalie Cortez delivers "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love" with dark conviction. Everyone dances with the proud precision that Bennett wanted.

Is anything wrong with A Chorus Line? Yes. The show is not perfect, and never was. What's questionable now is what was weak then. The book scene in which Cassie and Zach (the always commanding Michael Berresse) hash out their romantic past is awkward. The discussion about ending one's dancing years that leads up to "What I Did for Love" is maudlin, and the song itself, which Hamlisch rightly knew had radio-play potential, is so extraneous that you can almost see the sledgehammer used to force it into place.

Perhaps the most nagging flaw is the happy ending for Cassie. During previews of the original production at The Public Theater, one of the conclusions considered had her departing the audition early upon realizing that Zach is right when he proclaims chorus work isn't for her. But the show's creators decided the upbeat finish was preferable to the honest one; and from a commercial standpoint, they were undoubtedly correct.

Time has definitely changed one Chorus Line moment. When Mara Davi's Maggie hits that ringing high note in "At the Ballet," today's American Idol-trained patrons break into sustained applause -- something that didn't happen when Kay Cole did the exact same thing 31 years ago. Fortunately, A Chorus Line still hits its high note, and any sustained applause is eminently warranted.