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Queerty: High kicks & emotion prove ‘A Chorus Line’ remains a powerhouse at San Francisco Playhouse

'A Chorus Line' at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli‘A Chorus Line’ at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

The Rundown

Strip a show down to its brass tacks, and you will have its theater makers, the lifeblood of the art form. Michael Bennett’s Tony-winning A Chorus Line honors those artists by providing a musical bullhorn to the lived experiences that drive performers to audition for a coveted spot in the titular chorus line and, more generally, dedicate their lives to the performing arts.

James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante’s book, along with Marvin Hamlish (music) and Edward Kleban’s (lyrics) industry-reviving score, track the performers’ progression from winner-take-all auditionees to building solidarity through sharing each other’s stories. Nicole Helfer (who also plays Cassie) choreographs while paying homage to Bennett’s original style.

Once Broadway’s longest-running musical after debuting in 1975 and credited with drawing enough audiences to save a financially perilous Broadway, San Francisco Playhouse’s production provides a needed reminder that good theater is about compassionate storytelling, not just star power.

No Tea, No Shade

A Chorus Line San Francisco Playhouse‘A Chorus Line’ at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Zach (Keith Pinto), the director/choreographer, is looking to fill eight spots in a chorus line as part of a production, hopefully, headed to Broadway. He doesn’t just want to see their dance skills; he also wants to learn about the parts of themselves not described on their resumes. He’s looking for a cohesive ensemble, but each performer initially responds with what they think Zach wants to hear. But witty humor just scratches the surface. Things get personal when his ex, Cassie, shows up to audition after a failed stint in L.A.

Eventually, contrived anecdotes give way to authentic confessionals that humanize the hopefuls. Roy’s (Michael C. Kennedy) wit as a defense mechanism against bullying, Sheila’s (Alison Ewing) ability to turn her mother’s dream of being a dancer into her own, and Paul (Alex Rodriguez) discovering his family’s unconditional love for his queer identity are all experiences based in universal values (and on real-life interviews Bennett conducted during workshops). These stories refute the anointed star power as a measure of theatrical worth and instead affirm the theater’s ability to recognize and reach across the aisle.

In the final section of “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” led by Chachi Delgado as Richie, the mass of bodies coalesces into a whirlpool and altogether thrum to the beat. Helfer keeps Bennett’s iconic choreography for the closing number “One,” with each dancer in gold top hats and locked arms, kicking like there’s no tomorrow.

Let’s Have a Moment

A Chorus Line San Francisco PlayhousePaul (center – Alex Rodriguez) is injured during the audition in San Francisco Playhouse’s ‘A Chorus Line.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Paul’s monologue is tender, messy, and at times misguided. His entry to performing is through drag at the Jewel Box. It’s a place where being effeminate is not a sin but a virtue and a catalyzer for boundary-pushing queer expression. The abundant love that his new queer family piles onto him is palpable and fills the otherwise bare stage. But there is immediate whiplash when Paul describes drag as an art form that lacks dignity.

It is painful to watch a character frozen within this specific moment of their queer journey, still unpacking internalized homophobia and learning to love themselves for who they are. Paul recounts his father asking the drag queens to take care of his son, acknowledging that as joint family members, they all share a responsibility for Paul. His story hits home, particularly during our current era of anti-drag legislation.

The Last Word

'A Chorus Line' at San Francisco Playhouse‘A Chorus Line’ at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Michael Bennett died of AIDS-related lymphoma at age 44. “He understood the stage like no one else,” said Joeseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater, where A Chorus Line originated, and other Broadway hits like Hamilton, Take Me Out, and Fun Home.

But Bennett lives on nearly 48 years after the show’s Broadway debut. There’s a reason why everyone from Antonio Banderas to Michael Douglas (in the 1985 film flop adaptation) has wanted to be part of the show’s legacy. A Chorus Line’s timeless exploration of “What I Did For Love” is a dancer’s dream. And when audiences are lucky enough to catch a revival, it’s their dream, too.

A Chorus Line plays at San Francisco Playhouse through September 9.

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