The Wayback Machine

Two Broadway blockbusters offer more than just nostalgia

Carole Shorenstein Hays remembers standing in line outside the Curran Theatre to catch A Chorus Line when it arrived in San Francisco in May 1976 from its triumphal Broadway run. "I was so full of excitement," she recalls. "The anticipation was explosive." The same could be said of the atmosphere outside the Curran earlier this month, when the lauded theater owner and producer debuted the new Broadway-bound revival of the hit musical about a group of high-kicking hopefuls trying to make it through a cutthroat audition. I, for one, have never felt such tremors of expectation on Geary Street, and the sensation had nothing to do with the magnitude 4.5 earthquake that rumbled through Northern California that night.

Nostalgia is one of musical theater's all-consuming passions. As with most revivals — and Broadway has seen many in recent years, from Chicago to Cabaret— the present incarnation of A Chorus Line capitalizes on our love for an old show tune, more often than not first heard in our youth. But a musical doesn't have to demonstrate its age to flaunt a rose-tinted view of history: Even new examples of the form are feeding the nostalgia habit. Take last year's multiple-Tony-Award-winning The Light in the Piazza, for instance. Playing at the Orpheum Theatre — another Shorenstein Hays venue — on the first leg of a national tour, this romantic musical, concerning an American mother and daughter's travels through Italy in the early 1950s, yearns for a storybook past. In its presentation of a world in which the women look pretty and demure, the men look determined and handsome, and everyone looks like he stepped off the set of Roman Holiday, Piazza illustrates that the art form is one of this country's prime mediums for cultural mythmaking.

The nostalgia factor works in different ways in A Chorus Line and The Light in the Piazza. With A Chorus Line, it's in the faithful reconstruction of the original — which grew to become the longest-running Broadway musical of its day. I never saw the 1975 version, but judging by reviews and production images, it appears that little has changed in the intervening years. The restaging of Bob Avian's original choreography, with its repetitive and unexceptional kicks, drag runs, and leaps, feels dated. Lacking the distraction of flashy costumes, sets, and lights (Robin Wagner's bare-bones scenic design features little more than an empty space framed by a revolving mirrored wall), I found myself wanting more innovative choreography. Furthermore, while references to gonorrhea, homosexuality, and plastic surgery might have been shocking when the musical debuted, they barely register on the risqué meter today.

Same Old Line: A Chorus Line's restaged choreography feels dated.
Paul Kolnik
Same Old Line: A Chorus Line's restaged choreography feels dated.

Details

Through Sept. 2 and Through Aug. 27

Tickets $30-90

512-7770

www.bestofbroadway-sf.com.

Based on the novella by Elizabeth Spencer

Tickets $35-90

512-7770

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    Piazza's version of nostalgia, meanwhile, lies in its reconstruction of a mythic past — a romanticized, mid-20th-century American view of European culture as conveyed by the passion between a wealthy young American woman, Clara Johnson, and Fabrizio Naccarelli, an Italian youth. Now, everyone enjoys a good love story, but the way in which this musical reduces the Italian characters to idealized cliches (the "Mamma mia"s, the histrionics, the infidelities) makes it hard for a modern audience to take Spencer's bicultural relationship seriously. The show's narrative power is further undercut by its portrayal of Clara. This 26-year-old character is supposed to have the mind of a child, but the musical — more interested in painting a prettified myth than gritty reality — presents her as a beautiful, poised woman. That composer and lyricist Adam Guettel is the grandson of songwriting giant Richard Rodgers further ornaments the show's reverence for the past.

    That being said, it's not like I walked away from either production feeling like I'd been locked in a cobwebbed closet with nothing but a pair of frayed legwarmers and the summer 1953 issue of Italian Vogueto console me. The audience's excitement was enough to carry me through A Chorus Line even though, at two hours and 15 minutes without intermission, the production felt a few step-kick-step-repeats too long. The movements are crisp, the singing vital, and each character as colorful as costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge's natty, 1970s-era leotards and bandanas. The comic numbers among composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban's songs are particularly strong. As married couple Kristine and Al, Chryssie Whitehead and Tony Yazbeck complete each other's sentences with hilarious precision, giving the duet "Sing!" a goofy appeal. Natalie Cortez's performance, as Diana, of "Nothing," a pithy ditty about Method acting, evokes images of a frustrated drama student struggling to personify an ice-cream cone. And Jessica Lee Goldyn's bawdy refrain of "tits and ass" in the song "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" is especially pertinent in our post-Pamela Anderson era.

    The Light in the Piazza is equally appealing, not least for its visual beauty. If a Greek sculptor chiseled Spencer's characters out of marble and stuck them on pedestals, the statues would no doubt resemble these particular actors. With his lean musculature, olive skin, and dark, wavy hair, David Burnham makes the perfect Fabrizio. Christine Andreas' graceful, stately Margaret Johnson looks like a Good Housekeepingcover model, and Elena Shaddow's Clara is the sort of girl about whom Buddy Holly might have written a song. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's soulful play of shadow and light and Michael Yeargan's gliding Italianate sets — with their picturesquely run-down façades and oversized reproductions of artworks — keep the eye engrossed while mirroring the fluctuating passions of the characters. And then there's Guettel's voluptuous score, with its soaring string lines accented with marimba, harp, and woodwind.

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