Seventeen dancers face an exacting director, telling him the stories that made them want to become performers and kicking with precision in order to earn a place in the ensemble of his new musical. The set-up is simple, yet A Chorus Line, the ultimate show business show, is anything but. Its big heart and lush songs penetrate whatever steely artifice an audience member may think they have and reduces them to mush in less than two hours.
Signature Theatre knows this, and choosing to close the year with an American classic like this one was likely a no-brainer. Director Matthew Gardiner wasn’t content with simply replicating creator Michael Bennett’s staging and choreography though, so with permission from Bennett’s estate and an assist from choreographer Denis Jones, he’s updated the 44-year-old show ever so slightly, resulting in a marvelous revival that viewers will wish they could watch again and again.
ACL obsessives shouldn’t fret: The steps, kicks, leaps, and touches remain, albeit in different iterations, as do the sparkly top hats. Jones’ changes are most obvious in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” a musical regaling of the horrors of puberty that has the auditioners grooving one moment and doubled over the next. The updates are less successful in a slowed-down “Music and the Mirror.” It’s supposed to be a breakout number for Cassie, the former star who returns to the line in search of a job, but the slackened pace makes the segment drag.
(Not helping matters is the red leotard and skirt combination that practically swallows actress Emily Tyra. A note to all future Chorus Line costume designers: It’s been four decades, can we please find a new way to make Cassie look distinctive?)
The sensational ensemble more than keeps up with the demands of a show that keeps them on stage for nearly the entire run time, particularly Signature stalwart Maria Rizzo, who perfectly captures the wit and weariness of Sheila, a veteran dancer on the edge of 30. She delivers her jokes with bite and when she becomes vulnerable—in “At the Ballet” and during her final moment on the line—the performance takes your breath away.
Similarly spectacular is Matthew Risch as Zach, the director, who in less capable hands can come off as an inscrutable grump. Gardiner’s decision to move Zach’s desk into the center of the theater as opposed to the back, a benefit of Signature’s flexible MAX stage, allows the audience to consider him differently. Risch takes advantage of that attention, adjusting his glasses, shifting his gestures, and moving throughout the space to convey Zach’s focus. Here he’s not a rude taskmaster, he’s a man obsessed with getting this one decision right.
Risch is so good, in fact, that he upstages his partner in one of the show’s climactic scenes. When Zach confronts Cassie, his former girlfriend, about her intentions and their past, it’s his argument that wins over the audience, not hers.
That’s the thing about A Chorus Line: The show doesn’t change very much over time but as we age, our relationship with the show and its characters does. Those who once saw themselves in the youthful awkwardness of Daxx Jayroe Wieser’s Mark or the punchy resolve of Samantha Marisol Gershman’s Diana now see themselves as Zachs and Sheilas.
It doesn’t matter if the shape or size of the mirrors the dancers perform in front of change, though Jason Sherwood’s scenic design and the installation of neon lights brighten the black box. The show endures because of its inherent comfort. When times are tough, be it for personal, professional, or political reasons, a theater can become a refuge, where you can laugh and cry and marvel at impressively flexible performers doing athletic feats. The feeling you’ll leave the theater with is one of contentment, and a single phrase might resonate in your head on the way out: Oh god, I need this show.
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$124. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.