With a relentless perseverance, Dennis Assaf has pursued the dream of creating a first-class musical theater in Jefferson Parish. Some of the early efforts of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society were pretty wobbly; the scenery often looked like it might not last through the performance, while the cavernous auditorium in East Jefferson High School seemed determined to swallow up all the puny attempts of mortal thespians to weave a spell over an audience.
There have been, of course, many bright spots (Of Mice and Men, for instance, won a Big Easy Best Drama in 1996). But the brightest thing about the JPAS over the 25 years of its existence has been a heroic determination to keep improving. And I had the feeling, as I recently watched the high-stepping, satin-tuxed finale of A Chorus Line, that the dancers were celebrating not only the triumphant spirit of all performers everywhere, but the triumphant coming of age of the JPAS itself.
A Chorus Line deals with second-rung hoofers -- the razzmatazz corps de ballet known in the trade as "gypsies." They are an exotic, decorative species with an abnormally short life span (30 is really getting up there in age). These creatures can only survive in the rarified environment of a few endangered reefs of legit theater, such as New York's Broadway, London's West End and Paris' Grand Boulevard. They are attractive, graceful and impulsive, though endowed with an iron discipline, and -- for all their superficial cynicism -- they are idealists. Their present is insecure, their future unpromising. They could easily adapt to some more stable means of survival, and they have every good reason to do so. But, above all, they want to dance.
A Chorus Line, which was hailed as a breakthrough in musical theater when it opened in 1975, obeys the famous pseudo-Aristotelian laws of unity. It takes place right there on stage and in real time. Well, sort of "right there" and sort of "real"; often, it wanders into the equivocal time and space of abstract song-and-dance numbers, called "montages." Scenery and costumes are reduced to the bare essentials: a black stage (except, at times, for the striking, floor-to-ceiling mirrors) and rehearsal togs.
The dramatic tension comes from the knowledge that, of the 17 aspirants at a dancers' audition, only eight will be chosen. The plot turns upon the way they will be chosen -- not merely according to their talent, but on the basis of their personalities as revealed under the prodding of the choreographer Zach (Alton Geno), whose inquisitor's voice rises from the darkened auditorium, demanding confessions like some terpsichorean St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of the Great White Way.
Director/choreographer Kenneth Beck has assembled a well-balanced, personable cast and evoked a strong ensemble spirit that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Nonetheless, there were some standouts, such as Lara Grice as Val, the talented but uncurvaceous Midwesterner who finds her luck changes with the purchase of synthetic pulchritude (or as she famously puts it, "tits and ass"); Brandi Cotogno as Diana, a Puerto Rican with a sensational set of pipes; Eddie Bennett as Paul, who fought a losing battle to keep his drag act a secret from his parents; and Angie Joachim as Sheila, the tough-talking, wry veteran who fears her time may be running out. Jeff Lukas, Matias Grau, Nicholas Austin and Carl Adams were among the other noteworthy performers.
The central conflict concerns Zach and a woman named Cassie (played with an appealing dignity by Elizabeth Argus). Cassie was formerly a lead dancer. She was discovered and promoted out of the chorus by none other than Zach. They had become lovers. But she walked out one day, fed up with his all-consuming ambition. Now she has shown up at his audition, wanting only a part in the chorus because her career has hit the skids.
One can see the benefits to the play of this romantic imbroglio that ties the choreographer more essentially into the fate of dancers. But these benefits are paid for by an artificiality that serves to underline the parallel artificiality of the premise: heartfelt impromptu biographies as a method of choosing an ensemble of dancers.
Some artistic "breakthroughs" -- Samuel Beckett's plays, for instance -- retain a radical charge every time they are done. A Chorus Line is not in that category. But there is still a great deal to like in this fantasia on the theme of auditioning. The recent production by the JPAS (with conductor Assaf at the podium) was a well-polished and ingratiating musical treat.
- The Jefferson Performing Arts Society's revival of A Chorus Line felt like a celebration of the group's coming of age.