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A solid Chorus Line

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In recent reviews of two stellar local productions, Suessical at Theatre Charlotte and Beauty and the Beast at ImaginOn, I've extolled the benefits of downsizing big Broadway musicals. Last week, we saw the flipside of beneficial resizing at Belk Theater -- paradoxically, in that most austere of American musical megahits, A Chorus Line.

Bigger was better in establishing the ambiance of the Broadway theater where the grueling audition process unfolds. There's something to be said for the bigger emptier stage of the Belk that neither Theatre Charlotte (2006) nor Pease Auditorium (2003) can deliver. The austerity of the dancers' lives, the loneliness that infuses their stories, and the tenuous brevity of their careers all seem to play better against a backdrop that dwarfs the performers. So does the gilt finale where mirrors give way to a crass art deco backdrop and we finally see the extravagant scale of the dancers' Broadway dreams.

All the performances in last week's touring production were solid, another key difference in building the cumulative impact of Michael Bennett's docudrama. I don't recall much mention of the deftly-researched James Kirkwood/Nicholas Dante book of 1975 when similarly conceived scripts like The Laramie Project and The Exonerate were all the rage 25 years later. If the whole ensemble is strong and intense, the pangs we feel for those who miss the final cut are that much keener.

Raising the barre for the ensemble was zaftig Emily Fletcher as Sheila, the brassy brunette whose world-weary, wiseass attitude only thinly veils the desperation of a performer, at 30, unable to turn back the clock as her career plunges into its twilight. Also making a positive impact was Joel Dudding as Paul, the dancer who is injured at the auditions after a gut-wrenching interview.

Otherwise, it would be foolish to claim that Michael Gruber was more convincing than our own Billy Ensley as Zach, the hard-bitten soft-hearted director. Mindy Dougherty certainly strutted her stuff, real or synthetic, in her bubbleheaded "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" homage to cosmetic implants and surgery, but no more sassily than Candice Conder at CP or Alyson Lowe on Queens Road.

The only room for improvement was in Robyn Hurder's portrait of Cassie, the one-time chorine -- and Zach's one-time lover -- who grabbed for the brass ring of Hollywood stardom, failed, and now wants nothing more than to blend in with the chorus line and get the gig. We should be seeing a "Dance: 13" up there when Cassie sings her climactic "The Music and the Mirror," but Susan Harris (beauty: ten; grace: three) sang and moved just as well at CP.

Usually, it's an ominous sign when you find a slip of paper in your program on opening night announcing a cast replacement for a primary role. But in the case of understudy Sterling Masters filling in for Jessica Latshaw as Kristine, the substitution was cause for a homecoming celebration. Masters' mom operates a dance studio near the Park Road shopping center, and Sterling logged a CL Theatre Award nomination in 2003 at CP for her performance in Carousel before hitting the tour circuit.

Kristine is another lovable screwball, the dancer who cannot "Sing!" With Colt Prattes as her helpful husband, Masters deliciously executed the signature duet, dopily candid and irresistibly energetic, concluding with a fiercely off-key coda. Mom must have been proud. while

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