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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008|Long before “reality” shows there was “A Chorus Line,” the smash-hit, long-running musical that opened on Broadway in 1975. “Chorus Line’s” innovative, reality-based story chronicling 17 dancers at a grueling daylong theater audition had a razor-sharp edge and verisimilitude never seen before, making it a true sensation.

Choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett, “Chorus Line” won a Tony Award and the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1984 it was the longest running show in Broadway history. Now, more than 30 years later, the national tour stops in San Diego for only seven performances.

On opening night it was clear; the show has not lost its appeal or thrills after all these years. Opening with a bare, black stage, we are introduced to a group of ‘gypsy’ dancers being put through their paces (the rousing opening number, “I Hope I Get It”) by director Zach and his assistant Larry. From this group, cuts are made and 17 hopeful dancers emerge.

And here lies the brilliance of “A Chorus Line.” The audience “meets” the characters, one-by-one as they run the gauntlet of the audition process. In this show, scrupulous casting makes all the difference and this tour’s cast did not disappoint.

Emily Fletcher’s sardonic, street-wise Sheila vamped and delighted the audience with a high-voltage performance. Most importantly she never let her one-liners never reduce her character to a punch line. Natalie Elise Hall’s rendition of “Dance 10, Looks 3” was electrifying. Hall’s portrayal of the newly-buxom Val was refreshing and new. As the veteran performer Cassie, Erica Mansfield kicked it into high gear with her performance of “The Music and The Mirror.” Mansfield’s grace and skill becomes even more evident during the “One” number, when she’s berated by director Zach and asked to “dance down.” Amazing.

Michael Gruber’s refined commanding, Victor Garber-esque Zach gives both cohesion and tension to the process. Kevin Santos gives a tender, moving performance as Paul, who grippingly tells of coming to terms with his sexuality. Clyde Alves kicks off the show with show-stopping moves in “I Can Do That.”

As tough-girl Diana, Gabrielle Ruiz sang her heart out with conviction in “Nothing.” And then she blew it out of the water with “What I Did for Love.”

I wish I could name everyone. The cast had a superb sense of individuality but also togetherness that was also evident in the after-the-show “actor chat” with the audience.

It’s ironic that, at the end of the show (the famous “One: Reprise” number) each character is costumed and cloaked into the chorus line making it difficult to identify the individuals we “met” during the show.

The show has a few minor issues. The relationship and subsequent lines between Cassie and Zach always seemed awkward. Some of the themes are not as shocking these days as they were in the seventies (sexuality, puberty, plastic surgery.) That doesn’t mean they’re not important anymore, though. “A Chorus Line” is a landmark show that paved the way for more recent shows like “Rent,” proving its endurance on Broadway.

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