"A Chorus Line" is the classic Broadway story of Broadway dancers auditioning for a Broadway show.
In an ambitious production of "A Chorus Line" at the intimate Playhouse on Park theater in West Hartford, the vibe isn't quite Broadway. Nine of the 25 cast members hail from Connecticut, nearly half have studied at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and only two have their Equity union cards. There's little of the tense, cutthroat, competitive atmosphere that invigorates so many productions. There's more of a sense of young performers seeking that first big break than of professionals hoping to stay in the business.
On the other hand, there's a smooth ensemble feel and youthful energy that more seasoned, jaded "Chorus Line" casts lack. It's important that you feel the auditioners' despair and desperation, yet must also believe that, above all else, they still want to dance and perform.
The endearing young cast here delivers that essential eagerness and optimism. Stand-outs include Tino Ardiente as the fragile Paul, Tracey Mellon as the balletic Sheila, Bobbi Barricella as the loving Diana, Ronnie Bowman Jr. as the boyish Richie, the burly Alex Polzun as Mike (who brings boisterous comedy to his solo number "I Can Do That"), Cara Rashkin as the fresh-faced Judy Turner and Spencer Pond — this production's dance captain — as the ever-attentive choreographer's assistant Larry.
They can also all dance, another key requirement of this multi-faceted musical. Playhouse on Park's square, floor-level, low-ceiling performance area isn't exactly ideal for dance events, but theater's co-Artistic Director Darlene Zoller has long been acclimated to the space through the annual shows by her Stop/Time Dance Theater troupe. The dances here have real depth and dimension, spread out around the stage in a way that a proscenium set-up could not accommodate.
In such a challenging space, and with only two members of its cast having bona fide Broadway credits (Eric Robertson with an atypically warm and understanding take on the choreographer Zach and Michelle Pruitt showing a chipper weariness as the faded starlet Cassie), "A Chorus Line" has a different shape and attitude.
The late Michael Bennett — who conceived, directed and choreographed the premiere New York productions of "A Chorus Line" — is the only member of the original creative team to merit a blurb in Playhouse on Park's program notes, yet it's the sturdy work of book-writers James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyricist Edward Kleban and composer Marvin Hamlisch (whose jaunty, danceable melodies adapt very neatly to the small jazzy combo assembled by music directors Emmett Drake and Michael Morris) that resonates most in this production.
Playhouse on Park lets you see this enduring classic from a new angle. You don't feel like a voyeur who's wandered into an auditorium during an audition. You feel more like you're onstage with these talented characters, watching them sweat as their confidence erodes and they express their fears ("…And…"), desires ("I Hope I Get It") and prevailing passions ("What I Did for Love").
This is "A Chorus Line" up close. Ain't that a kick in the head?
"A CHORUS LINE," directed by Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and choreographed by Zoller — continues through July 31 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added shows Tuesday, June 28, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32.50 to $45. For tickets and information: playhouseonpark.org or call 860-523-5900, ext. 10.