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A Chorus Line is an iconic Broadway show, and has a long legacy to live up to. (Photos courtesy Atlanta Lyric Theatre)

Review: Lyric Theatre’s version of “A Chorus Line” surprisingly bland and fails to pop to life

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It’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time, both a nine-time Tony Award winner and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. Atlanta Lyric Theatre — the area’s only company dedicated to musical theater — has just opened its take of A Chorus Line, in a production running through November 6 at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre. ArtsATL critics Andrew Alexander and Jim Farmer saw the show last weekend, Alexander for the first time and Farmer for the 671st time. Here are their thoughts.

Andrew Alexander: Since you’re familiar with the company and the show, let’s start with your take. How did you think this compares to other Chorus Line productions and other Atlanta Lyric shows you’ve seen?

Jim Farmer: Let me say, first of all, that I am a sucker for A Chorus Line. I have been known to host dinner parties and do one-man versions of “At the Ballet.” I have seen a lot of Lyric shows in the last season or so, and this one was a bit lackluster. A Chorus Line is only as strong as its ensemble and I thought this ensemble was a bit light. What were your thoughts?

Alexander: Oh my God. Where do I buy tickets for your one-man Chorus Line? I sensed something lackluster in the show, too. I actually thought the performers were adequate, but the show clearly requires much more than that. There’s all kinds of dance, even a bit of ballet, and all of it has to look amazing. Many Broadway shows have singing and dancing in them; this is a show about singing and dancing. It just has to be mind-blowing for us to really root for these people.

Farmer: I usually mount my one-man show just before the Tonys each season. I will send you an invite next year! Okay . . .  let’s start with what I liked. I loved Allison McDowell as the assertive Sheila. The actress seemed to be living the character. I also enjoyed Alvaro Francisco as Paul, who shares a secret with director Zach (played by Logan Denninghoff) near the end in a genuinely touching moment. Lauren Watkins has some fun, too, with Valerie’s “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” The number “What I Did for Love” is beautifully anchored by Chani Maisonet’s Diana, but the performer stumbles on her earlier version of “Nothing,” a song all about emotion that has absolutely no feeling to it at all here. And while Ashley Chasteen’s Cassie can certainly sing and dance extremely well, I didn’t find her to be a particularly convincing actress. Who stood out for you?

Allison McDowell (from left to right), Alvaro Francisco and Ashley Chasteen provided some of the show's high moments.
Allison McDowell (from left to right), Alvaro Francisco and Ashley Chasteen provided some of the show’s high moments.

Alexander: I liked Chasteen’s Cassie better than you; I found myself really interested in the character of the “almost-star” who is returning to the chorus. Again, I thought everyone was fine, just very little popped vividly to life for me. I knew the basic concept of A Chorus Line going in, but overall I was kind of surprised by how dark and dispiriting the show is beneath the surface. It’s about a dysfunctional, abusive love relationship — the dancers to the business, that is — and it’s a relationship that we’re basically participating in and perpetuating as audience members. The characters bare their souls by telling the most personal, humiliating, heart-wrenching stories about themselves, and for what? There’s a late-show revelation that the members of the chorus are being chosen for their ability to blend in, to be anonymous and to not upstage the star. It’s pretty dreary. Half the dancers make the show, half don’t, and there seems to be no reason given in the script why some make it and others don’t. I knew it was a story about the harsh realities of the auditioning life, but man, it was a downer.

Farmer: Okay, so A Chorus Line will never win the feel-good musical award. And you are right about the random selections — I still get pissed that Sheila doesn’t make the final eight and a few bland characters do. But these gypsies do what they do because it’s their passion. It’s a hard, thankless profession, and certainly unfair, but they do what they do for love. Being part of an anonymous Broadway ensemble — in the background, not supposed to upstage the star — may not be seem like a lot to some but there are millions who would do anything to get that opportunity.

I have another beef with this production — the direction. Did you think it was well-staged/directed?

Alexander: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of huge staging choices in the show. It’s a bare stage, a series of monologues interspersed with musical numbers. One thing I didn’t like: the cast kept returning to that lineup formation in a stiff and formal way. It’s one of the most familiar images from the show. That single line of dancers in rehearsal clothes, facing front in various “at rest” poses, was used on the original poster, the Playbill, the Broadway cast album, and so on. The show used this, with the cast returning to it and holding it at various times throughout the performance. There seemed to be something affected about their return to this formation and the way they held it in this production — there was a noticeable effort to strike the same pose as before — when just the opposite effect was needed: we’re supposed to be glimpsing them at ease, so to speak, one of the show’s central conceits. Also, some of the men’s costumes were a bit puzzling. They looked nothing like dance clothes.

Farmer: I am a bit more forgiving about some of the traditions of the show. What I did have a hard time with is Ricardo Aponte’s direction. I have long admired Aponte’s skills as a choreographer but I don’t think he has segued as easily into directing. His version of Dreamgirls earlier this year was similar — with some superb performances and some not so superb performances. I have to say that of the large cast of this show, I don’t think that many made a huge impression. To me, with the talent available in the city, that is mildly unforgivable. And while Aponte moves the musical forward well enough, it didn’t have much of a signature. As you said earlier, it never popped to life except for some isolated moments. You are so right about some of the costumes — some of these guys look nothing like New York dancers. So would you recommend this, Andrew?

Alexander: Not hugely, no. I thought the directing was fine, but I wasn’t blown away by the dancing or choreography. It’s interesting you say that no one in the cast really stood out for you. That may be something about the production, but could that be inherent in the show? Isn’t it interesting that, as huge as this show is — it’s one of the biggest Broadway musicals ever — it’s never really been a star vehicle or star maker? Michael Jackson famously turned down the movie. He was wary of the gay content, but he probably also sensed that there was no role for a star in it. It’s about anti-stars, people willing to break themselves apart for the chance for a momentary, anonymous appearance onstage.

Farmer: That’s an interesting point. I’ve been enchanted by some of the work Lyric has done over the last 12 months — last fall’s Young Frankenstein was terrific — but it sounds like A Chorus Line wasn’t much of a sensation for either of us. I do think the company will rebound quickly, though. See you soon in an aisle near me, Andrew!

Alexander: I look forward to it. And I’m definitely counting the days ’til the Tonys!