In 1974, the late director-choreographer Michael Bennett set aside the usual impersonal audition process and spent some time with the applicants for the supporting chorus of his latest Broadway musical. In getting to know their personal histories, their hopes and dreams, he found a rich cross-section of society and a metaphor for life.
It was an ironic discovery--for of course in a chorus the goal is to blend in without a trace of individuality--and one ripe with continuing theatrical possibilities.
Out of Bennett's subsequent collaboration with his ensemble of unknown dancers came "A Chorus Line," arguably the most successful musical of its decade.
Theater League's crisp revival of this intimate portrait of creative personalities at the expansive main stage of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza comes at a time when artists are practically an endangered species, and evokes sympathy for the struggles and sacrifices of a frequently unrewarding and thankless career.
A well-cast ensemble convincingly renders the stories and personalities of the dancers who participate in "A Chorus Line's" self-revelatory audition. But more importantly, the production conjures up the shared urgency and desperation of egos so fragile they need the ephemeral high of performance just to keep going.
The tragedy that goes hand-in-hand with success is keenly felt in poignant performances by two of the principal characters: Paul (Michael Albert Simms), a Puerto Rican hard-luck story, and Cassie (Wanda Richert).
Simms infuses Paul's saga of alienation as an effeminate loner with understated pathos, while Richert makes Cassie's struggle to start her career over echo with universal pangs of mid-life crisis. Her solo dance, however, seems formulaic rather than self-expressive, taking the character's constraints perhaps a little too much to heart.
But Richert shines in her confrontation with Zach (Paul Hadobas), the omnipotent director who lords it over the troupe from his offstage perch. Drawing Zach onto the stage to explore his own history with Cassie supplies one of the few conventional dramatic movements.
Otherwise, the show relies entirely on characterization, and of course the less-than-overwhelming tension of the casting process (after all, it's a good bet the ones who sing the solos will make the final cut). Among the supporting cast, Kelli Fish is particularly spunky as the looks-obsessed Val.
Director-choreographer Sam Viverito maintains painstaking fidelity to Michael Bennett's original staging concept, with no attempt to contemporize. Even the orchestration revels in blaring brass and wah-wah guitar not likely to summon up nostalgia for the music of the period.
With mirrors its only props and egos its raison d'etre, "A Chorus Line" remains an enduring monument to the kind of narcissism that seems to be making a comeback.
* "A Chorus Line," Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Probst Center, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tonight, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $29.50-$35.50. (805) 583-8700, (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hour, 10 minutes.