A Chorus Line, review: a world-class production that bubbles with wit

A Chorus Line at the Leicester CurveMarc Brenner

At Curve Leicester, director Nikolai Foster has delivered the finest West Side Story I’ve ever encountered, and the most ingenious Sunset Boulevard I think we’ll ever see – streamed amid last December’s closures. Now he scores a hat trick with a world-class account of A Chorus Line that eclipses the memory of the Palladium staging in 2013.

Which is saying something. That revival was presided over by the late Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original Broadway show with director Michael Bennett. It was the first major London revival since the mid-Seventies, from whence – conceived using the testimony of real-life Broadway hoofers – it sprang.

There’s no “plot” as such to A Chorus Line, rather an agonising challenge: a group of talented dancers have gathered for an ensemble audition for a forthcoming show. Those in the running are whittled to 17. The deciding factor – to get to the final eight – lies with what they share about themselves with the auditorium-roving director who wants the low-down on their lives.

Although of its time, as a spectacle of competitive neediness, and self-salesmanship, it’s entirely – and pertinently – familiar to us today, glutted as we are with talent-shows and human zoos. If the piece were handled with too much earnestness, though, it could devolve into a rote hymn to striving, surviving and psychobabble.

Here, the evening is tacitly bolstered by Covid circumstance – the sense of how much the troupe itself will have gone through to get here adds a subliminal frisson. Foster honours the material to the hilt; Marvin Hamlisch’s score (musically supervised by David Shrubsole) sounds phenomenal, above all in the rousing finale One. But his winning approach lies in being tough with it too.

A Chorus Line at the Leicester Curve – Marc Brenner

Reuniting with the frankly brilliant choreographer Ellen Kane, he puts everything on the combative front-foot; the curtain rises on a spectacle of tireless physical activity and, after 110 minutes, descends on a tightly drilled chorus-line, a coming full circle from trial to execution. There’s no let-up in between.

As with Sunset Boulevard, Foster deploys a roving camera, catching the fretful auditionees up close as they turn to confide their hopes and fears. Moreover, he wields the technological might of the space, so that lighting rigs swoop down and rotate in imposing phalanxes, thrilling but also intimidating. There’s nothing cosily showbiz about it; the original’s stripped-back ethos is achieved anew but it all feels even more, not less, in the glare.

That might make the experience sound over-intense. But there are delightful comic numbers here – not least Sing!, in which husband and wife hopefuls join forces to elaborate on her appalling singing voice with a neat, undercutting physical virtuosity: Katie Lee’s Kristine reaches a joyously hideous high note before sliding into the splits.

A bubbling constant is wit, humour and the hustling, charismatic vitality of youth. Everyone’s dancing their socks off (no legwarmers, phew) and expressing a joie de vivre even amid the killing circumstances. In I Can Do That, Redmand Rance’s Mike coolly slinks through a succession of show-off moves and caps it by breaking not into a sweat but into song as he insouciantly eyeballs Adam Cork’s impassive director Zach.

The relatable pathos lies in the side-show nature of the real-lives divulged to impress him. Stories of parental neglect and contempt, adolescent angst, tales of being touched up or put down aren’t nothing, but it’s the fact that musical theatre, and the sense of belonging it offers, has become everything to these auditionees that creates the tension and substance. We grasp why it matters, yearn with them for the elusive dream-like elixir of stage-life.

Until Dec 31. Tickets: 0116 242 3595; curveonline.co.uk

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