“Everything was beautiful at the ballet” is one of the most recognizable song lyrics from “A Chorus Line.” A similar line, “Everything is beautiful at the theater,” could be the overall theme of the 1975 musical, which won nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976. For the characters in this show about show business, no matter the ups and often painful downs of auditioning, they are never sure they will get a job or, if they do, how long it will last.
That brave outlook, and many other issues that “A Chorus Line” tackles, have not changed much over the last 40 years, which helps to keep this paean to musical theater and a dancer’s life feeling fresh and contemporary.
A big part of the charm of the high-energy production at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is that its youthful cast members seem to be expressing their own joys and tribulations through the songs they sing, as a chorus and individually. Nearly the only way to tell that decades have passed since the original production, which was based on real stories from some of the participants, is that when the dancers give their birth dates, they reveal that they were born in the 1940s or early 1950s. Most of those original cast members and contributors of the tales that were woven into the musical’s fabric by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, the book writers, are now eligible for Social Security.
Thanks to Drew Humphrey’s sharp direction and Dena DiGiacinto’s snappy choreography, the stories and emotions that unfold — some of them more than a little sentimental — carry an urgency similar to the original’s. Scott Wojcik and Gayle Seay did an excellent job casting the show with spunky performers, many of them just starting their careers.
Among the standouts is Stephanie Israelson, who delivers a mischievous“Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” the comic song in which her character, Val, sings about how silicone and surgery helped her get roles. The fun she’s having with Edward Kleban’s clever lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch’s music, robust here but often lyrical in other songs, is infectious.
Kelly Sheehan’s Sheila, the sardonic, nearly 30-year-old dancer who has the guts to refer to herself as a woman, not a “girl,” strikes just the right poses and attitude. Because she wears a costume similar to the leotard and tights worn by Kelly Bishop, who won a Tony during the original production, she sometimes looks as though she is portraying Ms. Bishop. But her performance is her own.
In many ways, the staging here, including the set by Jonathan Collins, the lighting by Cory Pattak and the costumes by Tristan Raines, follows the template created by Michael Bennett, who is credited with conceiving, directing and choreographing the original. It truly was, to borrow another lyric, “one singular sensation,” both in form and content, and the revivals I have seen have not strayed far.
The trick is to make the elements appear organic rather than a copy, and the Engeman team has achieved that. The band, under James Olmstead’s direction, provides solid musical support.
The play’s main trouble spot. as it has always been — is the premise that Zach, the strict director conducting the audition, insists on turning it into a therapy session. He demands that the dancers impart their darkest secrets, supposedly because they might be asked to say a few lines on stage. Testing their acting abilities would make more sense. Furthermore, he then stresses that when they dance, they have to blend together, with no one sticking out. James Ludwig skillfully does not make Zach the sadistic monster he could be. (Interesting local connection: Robert LuPone, the original Zach, grew up in Northport, as did his sister Patti.)
The Engeman is also fortunate to have a strong Cassie, a dancer who was on her way to stardom but is now begging Zach, her former lover, for a spot back on the chorus line.
Jessica Lee Goldyn, who played Val and Cassie during the show’s 2006-08Broadway revival, shows off an elegant line and virtuosic twirls during her solo, “The Music and the Mirror.” More importantly, she conveys Cassie’s anguish and hard-earned maturity in coming to the realization that she is not meant to be a star and is satisfied — even proud — to dance “like everybody else” and be part of a chorus line.