On Dancer! On Prancer!

The late Joseph Papp, visionary impresario and driving force behind the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, once said, "There will never be another A Chorus Line." Indeed. First produced by the Shakespeare festival, A Chorus Line was handed over to Broadway entrepreneurs, and the money generated by the transaction has kept the festival alive for the last decade. Of course audiences, actors, and directors with an endless appetite for the production tend to interpret Papp's line in a more romantic way: There never will be another show that so embodies the fantasy of following your dream, no matter what the cost. And following it, as the lyrics to one of the play's showstoppers says, not to fill the cupboard or pay the health-insurance premium, but rather "for love."

Although linked to a tradition of such behind-the-scenes musicals as Gypsy and 42nd Street, A Chorus Line rightly was hailed for its originality when it opened in the mid-1970s. Choreographer and director Michael Bennett, and writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante developed the show during a long workshop process in which they interacted with real dancers, who told stories of their struggles to stay afloat in the theater world. The result of their efforts was a two-act musical that takes place during an audition, wherein more than a dozen "gypsies," the often nameless cast members who serve as the chorus in big shows, are asked to recall when they first realized they wanted to be dancers. Never before in a musical had players stood on a bare stage and revealed themselves so honestly. Twenty years and twenty million changes in the culture later, the show continues to be performed at an almost relentless rate, on community stages and in professional theaters. There never may be another play like it, but does A Chorus Line merit yet another production?

Actors' Playhouse in Kendall seems to think so, and co-directors David Arisco and Robert DeLeon rally a talented cast to present an energetic rendition. The dancing is tight and toe-tapping, the ensemble singing excellent, and some of the individual numbers memorable, particularly Chrissi Guastella's (Diana) "What I Did for Love" and Angela Smith's (Val) bump-and-grind version of "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three," a number I usually hate. Elizabeth Palmer has attitude to burn as the tough-cookie-outside, terrified-of-aging-inside Sheila, and DeLeon is sweet and sad as Paul, although he strains just a bit too much for effect during his monologue about starting his career in a seedy drag show. Charlene Clark's strong stage presence translates into credible acting and dancing in the central role of Cassie, but as a chanteuse she doesn't have the voice to carry her showcase number, "The Music and the Mirror."

I especially liked the rough-around-the-edges quality Arisco and DeLeon bring to their Chorus Line, because so many productions of the musical are overly polished, with the dancers' memories sounding too rehearsed. But for two distinct reasons, I was struck by how dated the script has become: 1) The frankness about homosexuality, drag shows, and broken homes that imbued the original with so much honesty seems innocent today in an era in which people line up to appear on TV talk shows in order to disclose their deepest secrets. In fact, people save their most private revelations for such televised confessions. 2) A "book" as intimate about the theater as A Chorus Line's never could be written now without addressing, in some part, the AIDS epidemic, because so many people in the theater community, including Michael Bennett, have died as a result of AIDS-related illnesses. Given these considerations, it's to Actors' Playhouse's credit that the book comes off as fresh as it does.

Don't be put off by the unappetizing title of another song-and-dancefest, Bagels & Yox, currently at Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse. I went to see the two-act nightclub revue on the strength of its stars, Bruce Adler and Mal Z. Lawrence, and I was not disappointed. These consummate professionals have honed their skills on stages from the Catskills to Broadway to Vegas, and they deliver their material to South Florida audiences with relish.

The show opens to the strains of spirited klezmer music performed by an on-stage orchestra under the musical direction of Zalmen Mlotek, which immediately gives way to a little-bit-of-this, a-little-bit-of-that back-and-forth banter between Adler and Lawrence. I was convinced I'd stumbled on a cross between a bar mitzvah and MGM's That's Entertainment, but the show turns out to be much more. Adler, a polished, first-rate song-and-dance man, on leave from Broadway's Crazy for You, headlines the first act. With irrepressible energy and a rich voice, he takes us down a Yiddish-theater memory lane, including tributes to such Second Avenue icons as Mickey Katz and Menasha Skulnick. Lawrence takes over in act two with his smooth and expertly timed standup act, hysterically lampooning everything from life in Florida to aging to marriage to the proclivity for overeating at hotels in the Catskills. (The on-stage musicians barely could contain themselves from cracking up.) The act also features Isabelle Farrell, who joins Adler on a couple of songs (she's less steady on her feet than the other entertainers), and the wonderful Joanne Borts, who opens act two with panache, singing several solo numbers.

The evening is a must for anyone who likes musical theater, Borscht Belt humor, Yiddish life in the U.S., or watching great entertainers. As much as I enjoyed myself, however, I am not certain the revue translates to theatergoers who are, as Adler calls it, "Yiddish-impaired." After the show, I informally polled one member of the audience who I knew was not Jewish. She liked it, she said, while conscious of not "getting" everything, especially in act one. And yet she was dazzled by the showmanship. So even if you're Yiddish-impaired, take your chances and go.

Stage Notes
Exciting fanfare accompanies the upcoming Miami premiere of playwright Tony Kushner's Angels in America. On Monday, April 17, Kushner will present a workshop and lecture in conjunction with performances of the two-part epic, which will be staged at the Gusman Center from April 18 to April 23. At 1:00 p.m. on April 17 in the Grand Center Ballroom of FIU's University Park campus (SW 107th Avenue and SW 8th Street), Kushner will lead a free workshop, including staged readings by students and faculty of the playwright's 1986 A Bright Room Called Day. For information call 348-2895. At 7:30 p.m., at FIU's Wolfe University Center (NE 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard) on its North campus, Kushner will lecture about his work, with a question-and-answer session afterward. Open to the public, the event is free to FIU students, staff, and faculty, but costs three dollars for non-FIU students, and eight for the general public. (General public tickets will not be available until April 3.) Seating is limited to 300. For information call 940-5680.

Under the aegis of the Miami Light Project, monologuist-actor-author Spalding Gray returns to the area for two evenings of works in progress at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach. A storyteller in the American tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers but with a contemporary edge, Gray alchemizes his personal obsessions and adventures into distinct performance pieces. According to Miami Light Project co-director Caren Rabbino, Gray has "built a following in Miami and feels he would like to try out new work here." So, on Friday, March 10, Gray presents Interviewing the Audience, straying from his usual format to speak directly with audience members and spin a performance from that interaction. On Saturday, March 11, Gray returns to the format for which he is best known, performing his newest -- as yet untitled -- monologue. For tickets and information, call 532-3747.


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