‘I’m a dancer: a dancer dances,” says Cassie in this enduring 1975 concept musical about auditions at a Broadway theatre. But Cassie hasn’t had a gig in a year. Calling herself a dancer requires more resolve than it once did. Many performers will feel the same after the battered theatre industry’s Covid shutdowns. Playing Cassie’s old flame Zach, the director overseeing try-outs for a new show, is actor, dancer and choreographer Adam Cooper. The pandemic left the hugely experienced Cooper, like so many, without stage work and on universal credit, unable to get a job as a delivery driver such was the competition.
What a thrill, then, to see the deep Curve stage flooded with talented dancers, delighting in one of musical theatre’s most enthralling openings. And 5, 6, 7, 8: off they go, driven on by the irresistible brassy attack of Marvin Hamlisch’s score, rehearsing jazz and ballet combinations, supporting each other. As the group is whittled down, Zach calls on the remaining hopefuls to divulge personal truths while Cassie waits to privately confront him with hers.
The book for Michael Bennett’s musical, by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, drew upon interviews with performers about their lives. In I Can Do That, Redmand Rance is a gleeful hoofer recalling a Damascene moment at his sister’s dance class. We hear other tales of careers founded on a childhood love for The Red Shoes or trips to the ballet. They have an affecting, universal quality even if you want one or two more of the deeper, startling revelations that can come out of the best workshops; there is an underlying composure to A Chorus Line compared with the messier rawness of Alan Parker’s Fame. Almost 50 years on, much of what the show says about the theatre business still rings true although it can’t help but feel rather limited when the industry is having long-overdue conversations about abuse of power and mental health.
Those tunes though. Katie Lee shines as Kristine performing Sing! and Chloe Saunders, as Val, sells every witty couplet by Edward Kleban in Dance: Ten, Looks: Three. Emily Barnett-Salter’s cat-like Sheila embodies the slinky opening bars of One and I Hope I Get It is executed with zest even if it doesn’t quite have the anguish it might. The standout is Ainsley Hall Ricketts, as Paul, whose story of abuse and acceptance stops the show in its tracks. You feel his face burn with shame and pride.
Cassie and Zach’s relationship, never really that involving, isn’t solved despite strong performances by Carly Mercedes Dyer (so brilliant as the moll in the Barbican’s Anything Goes) and Cooper. This Zach is milder than Michael Douglas’s bullish portrayal in the 1985 movie and Cooper has the right questing quality in the role, determination etched in his features.
Nikolai Foster’s production, with a tight band and crisp choreography by Ellen Kane, extensively uses live video projection as a camera operator weaves among the dancers. It ramps up the intimacy of some of their stories and accentuates how wannabe movie star, Bobby, is literally ready for his closeup, but could do more to capture the sweaty exhilaration of being among a company of dancers.
The camerawork excels when creating optical illusions that nod to Busby Berkeley, helped by the four pillar-like mirrors on Grace Smart’s set and the geometrically arranged rigs for the lighting (design by Howard Hudson). There can’t be an unused spotlight in the building by the end of One, which becomes a moving testament to all those theatre workers who mobilised as a chorus for their imperilled industry.
• At Curve, Leicester, until 31 December.