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A Chorus Line under the stars: Still powerful after all these years

The life of a chorus dancer: auditioning, undergoing examination from a faceless director -- part God, part Freud -- who prowls the rear of the auditorium, instructing, demanding, coaxing, humoring the aspirants to be so special and memorable that they might be chosen to surrender their identities to become an anonymous face, an interchangeable part of the support system, a team of "One." And then, when a show closes (if it ever opens), to go through the profoundly ironic and existential process yet again, risking exposure and rejection over and over and over, until the body can no longer perform. And braving all this not for stardom, but instead for unsung roles, for approval, because, well, they have to, love to, need to -- must.

A Chorus Line is back. Nearly 20 years after so astounding the world that it became the longest-running musical in Broadway history -- 6,137 performances over 15 years -- it still holds up remarkably well. Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett (who also created Dreamgirls and choreographed Company, Follies and Promises, Promises), this 1975 backstage musical is still the most savvy, moving, transcendent musical of the late 20th century.

There's nothing so naked as an audition. After the initial weeding out of the chorus line, 17 dancers are left standing, waiting to be called forth one by one to account for themselves under the glaring white lights. Putting themselves on the line in hopes of making the final cut, they expose much more than their abilities. In a public confessional, they reveal that they started dancing to get away from troubled family lives and hateful schools, from feeling "different," from feeling gay, from feeling unattractive -- because, as one of Edward Kleban's lyrics goes, "Everything was beautiful at the ballet." Some were inspired by The Red Shoes; others pointedly weren't. At the determined director's insistence, they lay themselves bare -- through humor, pathos and tenderness, they try to get at what he wants. Monologues, interior monologues, song, dance, pantomime: hearts are broken, hopes dashed, dreams realized.

The preview performance of the Theatre Under the Stars' production I saw captured the show's essence. Though the opening number, "I Hope I Get It," was a beat too slow and felt flat, and though the blocking at times herded the performers instead of helping them flow, director Wayne Meledandri was in full command. He respected most of Bennett's inspired wishes, from having the dancers get in extra practice in the wings; to playing out a tense actress-director love affair while a glamorous, high-kicking production number is rehearsed; to leaving a slot open on the line when a dancer goes down with an injury; to creating a business-as-usual mood as the winners are announced, a curt jolt following the musical's two hours of intimacy. Jonathan Charles' choreography has everything it's supposed to: jazz, tap, ballet, modern.

Standouts from the cast include Katie Cameron's Judy, a saccharine-sweet Texas gal; Michelle Schumacher's preening Val, the famed "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" stepper who "bought myself a fancy pair, tightened up the derriere;" and Daniel J. Proctor's "strange" Bobby, so effeminate that he once broke into people's houses to rearrange their furniture. Janis Rosenthal's passionate Diana and Margarita Christine's spunky Connie also deserve mention. So does Guillermo Gonzalez: with a bashful smile and delicate airs, he's touching as Paul, who has the most demanding monologue, one in which he recounts how he was once a naive transvestite. As Sheila, the sarcastic, aging sex kitten, Hilary Fields is better at speaking than singing; Richard Wojnowski, though certainly a proficient hoofer, isn't pizzazzy enough for "I Can Do That." Donna Hull makes Kristine believably ditzy, but she could sing even more off-key.

Joseph Malone assumes command as Zach, the director, but could be more controlling and omnipotent. As Cassie, the overqualified dancer and one-time flame of Zach, Jamie Chandler-Torns dances up a storm. No wonder: the actress was awarded the fabled Gypsy Robe, a garment periodically bestowed to a Broadway dancer of the highest merit, for her work in The Red Shoes.

There's only one thing that threatens A Chorus Line: current events. For though it deals openly with homosexuality, the absence of any reference to AIDS makes it feel a bit dated. So does its lack of attention to politics, whether of equal rights, race or interpersonal relations. The theater, after all, has long had therapeutic value, particulary for those involved, or for those who feel oppressed. But since composer Marvin Hamlisch is the only member of the creative team still alive, it's unlikely that the text could be updated. Even so, A Chorus Line's level of emotion, insight and plain old theatricality make it far better than most other musicals -- or plays. How fitting that at Miller Outdoor Theatre these "nobodies" play, free of charge, to the stars.

Theatre Under the Stars presents A Chorus Line through July 23 at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. Tickets are free and can be obtained the day of the show only. Call 622-1626 or 622-

 
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