A Chorus Line at Skokie Theatre still entertains despite imperfections

I have loved A Chorus Line since I first saw it in about 1977 at the Schubert (now CIBC) Theatre in Chicago. I loved how vibrant it was. I loved its music. I loved its sense of humor and its sense of authenticity. And I loved its meta-ness: based on conversations with actual Broadway dancers, it dared to take us backstage and, instead of the glitz and gloss of the finished production—which we can glimpse in the song “One”—we saw the real people who auditioned to be a part of it. Their love of their art, their often-frustrating upbringings, their talent, and their desperation all were bared on the stage, creating iconic moments such as when the auditioners spread across the front of the stage, faces covered by their headshots, or the amazing musical montage of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” in which the song’s focus is constantly switching. I even loved the musical’s edge-pushing, openly discussing homosexuality, using “impolite” language like “shit,” “tits,” and “ass”—two of which were contemporaneously on George Carlin’s list of “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” (My goodness, how things have changed!)

I had never seen anything like it.

Today, A Chorus Line feels very much a part of its era, but that same element of reality embraces everything about it. Unlike siblings like Pippin or Godspell (both stuffed with songs by Stephen Schwartz), which also present the audience with a large ensemble and build their stories in a nonlinear fashion, A Chorus Line plays it straight. There is no magic to do, no parables to sing, no bigger-than-life moments. It’s just a bunch of dancers auditioning for a part in a show. This is a musical that takes life as it finds it and knows that not everyone gets a happy ending. When it is done, we know that life will go on, and those who did not make it will be auditioning for something else tomorrow.

Wayne Mell’s MadKap Productions’ show is the product of much love and passion for the genre of musicals itself, and it is an enjoyable production even if it is squeezing itself tightly to fit on the tiny Skokie Theatre stage. (The CIBC stage is not very wide, but at least it didn’t force the above-mentioned iconic lineup moment into a chorus arc.) That said, though, Mell and his cast do a fine job of bringing us all of what my kids call “the feels”: the joy, the fear, the sadness, and (yes) the love that must come together to make theatre, and that cast seems to be having a lot of fun with it.

The more comic characters, from Kristine (Madison Jaffe-Richter) who protests that she can’t sing—with timely assistance from her husband (Ben Isabel)—to Val (Lili Javorka) whose song is about the parts she has been able to play because of the parts that she had had surgically enhanced, easily stand out, though the mostly dramatic “Hello Twelve” montage leaves no doubt that this is not all fun and games. Sometimes it can be very serious indeed, as it is to Paul (Luis Del Valle). Paul does not have a song, but he does have a powerful and emotional monologue (about beginning his career in drag shows and his parents finding out). When I AD’d this play at the start of my career directing high school theatre, a wire-thin teen named Vince Vaughn (yep, that one) played the role. I bring this up only to note that Del Valle’s performance of this speech in this production is easily the best I’ve ever seen, and by far.

A Chorus Line is an ensemble play; there are no central roles. Maybe Zach (Sean M. G. Caron), the director auditioning these dancers, could be considered a lead by virtue of the fact that he is in charge of the whole thing and his voice permeates almost every scene. (Caron is quite believable in this role.) Maybe it’s Diana (Marcella Ossa Gómez), who is the only auditioner to sing two songs, including the memorable “What I Did For Love,” the beating heart of the show. (Gómez gives us a very human Diana, just what the part requires.) Or maybe it’s Cassie (Sarah Sapperstein), who knows Zach from a past show in which they developed a close relationship. Cassie let Zach convince her to quit Broadway and move to LA to be a “star,” and he can’t handle the fact that she is here, many unfulfilling years later, trying to get a job in his chorus. Their history makes her the character the audience most likely will root for, and Sapperstein, with her wonderful presence and excellent singing voice (and the fact that she is clearly a very strong actor even if Cassie is not), should help seal the deal. Where she comes up short is in the dance department. Sapperstein is a good dancer—don’t get me wrong—but Cassie is supposed to be such a standout that Zach believes she can’t fit in a chorus line where all moves have to be identical. Even though choreographer Susan Pritzker toned down her breakout number “The Music and the Mirror,” though, it’s clear that, in a cast of fine dancers, she is exactly what Cassie wants to be: one of them.

If you’ve never seen A Chorus Line, or if you’re a fan of the show like me, it’s worth the trip to see this version even with certain technical aspects that get in the way. One of them, unfortunately, is the sound, which kept cutting out while characters were soloing (sort of a big issue in a musical). Another is the nearly unforgivable distractions caused by a rear stage door repeatedly opening and letting in the bright light of a Skokie day. If that door needs to be used—and there is practically no room backstage at this theatre, so it probably does, why in the world isn’t it masked off? These issues, individually small, kept yanking me out of the world of the show. Still, as long as one has a talented cast—and this is definitely a talented cast—and a good director and choreographer, it’s hard not to be entertained by A Chorus Line.

A Chorus Line is presented by MadKap Productions and is playing at Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln, Skokei, until October 8. Performance times vary; check the schedule here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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