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THEATER REVIEW 'A CHORUS LINE' : Stepping High : The Santa Barbara production is done with professionalism and style, but the musical stumbles in some places.

May 16, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Theater patrons have come to count on high-quality entertainment from the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera production, and "A Chorus Line" won't disappoint those expectations. From start to finish, it's high-stepping polish and professionalism served up with style.

It would almost have to be, with director Baayork Lee at the helm. Lee originated the role of Connie Wong in the original production and has made a semi-career out of directing revivals.

We can take it for granted that the SBCLO production is thoroughly faithful to the letter and spirit of the work as originally conceived.

"A Chorus Line," in a departure from traditional Broadway musical form, was never written around a conventional story line. Rather, it grew out of a series of intensive audition interviews with dancers who discussed their art, their circumstances and their dreams with the late Michael Bennett.

The most revealing and stage-worthy histories were incorporated into the show.

What we get in this unique form of "found" theater is a self-revelatory monologue in speech, song, and/or dance from all 23 characters.

Within this widely dispersed context, consistency is the key to a successful production of "A Chorus Line."

SBCLO achieves this by forgoing its traditional casting (professional leads supplemented with talented community performers) and importing 17 Equity performers for the show. An expensive decision for a regional company, and worth a commendation for the commitment to quality.

The decision paid off handsomely. I'll spare you the descriptions of the individual plot lines, but suffice it to say the performances remain compelling throughout the two-hour production, particularly from Jon G. Orozco, General McArthur Hambrick, Penelope Richards, Jennifer Walden, and SBCLO veterans Brian Wightman and K.C. Gussler (from "Singing in the Rain"), and Catherine Fries (from "Evita").

Steven Gerri's lighting design supplies an impressive array of ever-shifting moods to the minimal set.

The piece is performed without an intermission (which requires some advance planning, but this may be merciful considering the Lobero Theatre's notorious restroom queues).

Despite the production's professionalism, there are fundamental structural problems with "A Chorus Line" that no miracle of staging can help.

First of all, it's pretentious as hell.

This is no fluffy romantic fantasy in which to let our minds wind down for a few hours--it's an adult musical, with the four-letter words to prove it.

It's packaged as a serious work, drawn from real life, and as such it's accountable to the rules of good drama. And the most basic question of dramatic importance--what's at stake?--is poorly answered here.

These dancers' artistic ambitions may be on the line, but failure means only that they might have to make their way in the world without stardom, just like (gasp) the majority of the working population who are less than enamored with their means of livelihood.

If this is supposed to be a tragic fate, well, take a look at the headlines.

We all want to follow our dreams, but there is a repellent undercurrent of self-absorption to these characters' obsession for success that seems wildly out of balance and dates the piece precisely in the most embarrassing sludge of the '70s mind-set.

It's appropriate that the only props on the stage are mirrors.

The monologue format only exaggerates this narcissism, for we see egos rampaging without any kind of relationship, except to the unseen director's voice that controls their success or failure.

The only interpersonal connections come when the director (Scott Pearson) confronts his onetime lover (Jani-K Walsh) who is trying out for the show.

This is the most contrived story element of all, obviously included to address the fundamental lack of sympathy the piece would otherwise evoke.

I admired the extraordinary quality of this production, but at every turn it reminded me of the unmitigated and ultimately alienating greed of the "Me Decade" that would eventually spend itself in desperate Yuppie squandering.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"A Chorus Line" will be performed through June 30, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $24.50 for Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees; all other performances are $23. Call 963-0761 for reservations or additional information.

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