"A Chorus Line," as Shizuko Hoshi's revival production at East West Players proves, does not have to be on a big stage to get across. It's the small stage--Joe Papp's Public Theatre, specifically--that was the birthplace of the late Michael Bennett's musical. The intimacy, the smell of sweat only makes the process of the dancers' cattle call more unsparing and painful.
The bigger challenge East West has put itself up to is casting the show with young Asian-Americans. (Keone Young is Zach, the alternately tough and caring director.) East West has done such rethinking before, as with "Happy End," another idiosyncratic musical. But to rethink "A Chorus Line," one must step carefully through a mine field of dangers. Bennett's concept allows no room for winging it.
The dancers that don't make Zach's first cut have to be convincingly short of the mark, without being clowns. Those who do have to be very fine. Those who make the final cut have to be first-class Broadway material.
Beyond that, they all have to sing excellently (except Christine, of whom the whole joke is that she can't sing at all). And a few of them have to act their socks off.
There may be no Donald O'Connors in this lineup, but practically everyone informs his or her character with "A Chorus Line's" true theme: The religion of dedication.
The initial minutes announce the theme loudly. While Young barks out his routines as a slightly Buddha-like drill instructor, the eager troupers dance for their lives--which, in this world, is no cliche. It's rare when small theater projects the physicality, tension and release of a sporting event in which there are only those who win and lose, but Hoshi's staging does this remarkably well.
Most of the winners look and sound convincing. Betsy Chang's Val is redolently full of herself, but her startling, sexually based confidence will always keep her in work. At the other extreme, Jason Ma's Paul, the best male dancer, is also the most vulnerable and fragile. He's the most maudlin subject of James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante's book, but Ma gives Paul some honest resiliency.
We wonder, though, whether some of those who made it deserve it. Whatever talent she once had, this show's Cassie (Mimosa Iwamatsu) doesn't even give off the heat of a fallen would-be star. This is crucially bad casting, especially as Iwamatsu can't carry the big dramatic moments with the always-capable Young. Deborah Nishimura's Maggie can outsing everybody, but in the final number she can't do the high kick. And she made the final cut.
The music backing the dancers is the only element here truly hobbled by a small stage. The trio of keyboardist Scott Nagatani, synthesizer player and flutist Lisa Joe and percussionist Glen Iwaoko, under G. L. Chin's underdeveloped musical direction, waters down Marvin Hamlisch's already thin score. These keyboards, at least, will never replace an orchestra.
As far as that small stage goes, designer Mako has reconfigured the theater's usual L-shaped seating arrangement into long, straight rows, expanding the playing space, filling the side walls with mirrors (an effect missed in larger halls), and arranging for big, fold-out upstage mirrors for the climax. He's turned East West into a different theater.
But this "Chorus Line" is not as different as the casting might indicate. No matter how deep, how felt the ritual and exhibition of dedication--and this edition takes the religion very seriously--it can't escape the cornball music dollops and the book's pseudo-Freudianisms. Hoshi's show convinces us that "A Chorus Line" can be done by any race in any place (as long as we believe they're Broadway-bound). It also reconfirms that the only reason this may become a musical for the ages is that it will keep dancers in work.
Performances are at 4424 Santa Monica Blvd. on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. through Nov. 29. Tickets: $13-$15; (213) 660-0366.