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A Chorus Line at Shea's

Sending a touring company of A Chorus Line to Buffalo is a risky proposition. This is the town where the creator of the show, Michael Bennett (DiFiglia), learned to dance and where his Broadway dreams were born.

His Buffalo contemporaries swear that they recognize dance combinations in the opening sequence of the show that they first learned from Beverly Fletcher, co-founder of the theater program at Niagara University at Miss Bev’s Dance Studio in Niagara Falls. Countless dancers here knew and studied with Miss Bev, who died just this year. Moreover, it would be difficult to find a town in which more children are enrolled in dance classes, per capita, than in Buffalo, New York. (I’ve never heard a more hungry and unbridled ovation in Buffalo than the one given to Chita Rivera at the closing performance of The Dancer’s Life at Shea’s—people screaming at the stage and Chita calling back, “Thank you, Buffalo!”) In addition to Bennett, Buffalo sent several of his generation, like Sam Viverito and Mary Jane Houdina, to Broadway, and many a performer since.

When a character in A Chorus Line quips that “suicide in Buffalo would be redundant,” there are those here who remember how ambitious young Mickey DiFiglia would quickly (and without compunction) ditch one dance partner when he spotted a better one, and how he left Miss Bev standing at the stage door of the Shubert Theater, not introducing her to any of the Broadway Chorus Line company as his teacher, instead dismissing her as “just a friend.” Moreover, between tours and universities and local professional groups, we’ve seen our share of Chorus Lines, and, therefore, a litany of Cassies, Sheilas, Dianas, and Pauls resonate in our collective memory.

It is high praise therefore to say that the touring production of A Chorus Line that opened at Shea’s on Tuesday is very satisfying, indeed. Before the familiar sequence of the show began, an announcement was made, dedicating the performance to “Buffalo’s own Michael Bennett.” This positioned us nicely for what may be an evening’s diversion in other towns but is a ritual of communal importance here.

For the uninitiated—who are either from out of town or very young—A Chorus Line is the story of a Broadway dance audition at which the director, Zach, interviews the finalists, probing into their personal lives with the justification that he needs a tight ensemble of dancers who can act and dance sublimely and work as a close-knit team. He narrows the group down to a roster of some of the most vivid characters ever invented for a Broadway show—themselves distillations of the real-life dancers who helped create A Chorus Line through a process of workshops. In Theoni V. Aldredge’s original costume designs, these people are actually iconic.

The current tour has been launched thanks to the recent Broadway revival, and a number of the dancers appearing at Shea’s had appeared in that production. Aside from occasional issues of diction (and, I’m told, issues of sound dead spots in the enormous Shea’s auditorium), the re-creation of the original staging is faithful and marvelous.

I was especially impressed by Bryan Knowlton’s performance as Paul, the Puerto Rican boy who tells the story of being seen by his parents when he’s dancing in the Jewel Box Revue in drag. I have never seen a more vivid and compelling reading of that arresting monologue—including in the original Broadway cast, which I saw. The story is difficult and uncomfortable. As Knowlton began, the audience at Shea’s was a cacophony of coughs. As he proceeded through the tale, the crowd became quieter and quieter, until the climactic moment, when his traditional Hispanic father, realizing the truth of his child’s life, painfully and lovingly pleads with the producer, “Take care of my son.” Knowlton uttered the line to profound silence and exited to tumultuous applause.

The role of Cassie is, to be honest, impossible for anyone but Donna McKechnie to dance. “The Music and the Mirror” was choreographed for her specific talent and unique whiplashing style. Anyone who doubts that can it look it up on Youtube, followed by a look at “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Robyn Hurder does admirably well in the role. Her acting is wonderfully convincing, and when she dances, she glides through space with the confidence of McKechnie, if not precisely her gravity-defying technique. Her most McKechniesque moment, incidentally, is a marvelous stage right cross immediately following “What I Did for Love.” It’s a simple walk, but she does it exquisitely, and I found her Cassie entirely satisfying.

Erica Mansfield is very pleasing as mature and world weary Sheila. In Buffalo she must compete with the memory of Terrie George—who actually does run a dance school here, the very career move Sheila says she’s contemplating as her career as a dancer winds down. She brings the required acerbic wit to the role. Rebecca Riker gives a similarly winning performance as Diana Morales, who gets to sing two of the shows most memorable numbers, “Nothing,” about a horrible high school acting teacher, and “What I Did for Love.”

Clyde Alves kicks the show into high gear with his appealing and athletic rendition of “I Can Do That.” Jessica Latshaw reinterprets Kristine, the dancer who cannot sing, with all new horrible vocals which are sublimely funny. Mindy Dougherty conquers “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” the number better known as “Tits and Ass,” with comic brilliance. As Connie, the ageless Asian dancer, Liza B. Domingo is, as every Connie must be, adorable.

To be fair, every performer in the show brings something special to it; when Cassie tells Zach (played by Kevin Neil Mccready) that they are all special, we sincerely agree.

Buffalo’s own Bethany Moore is as delightful as ever she was in the role of Judy Turner, the tall airheaded/redheaded chorine who talks too much and yearns to be Gwen Verdon. She is consummately appealing, gifted with comedy, sings marvelously, dances divinely—and fear not, Buffalo, Judy makes the final cut.

A Chorus Line continues at Shea’s through Sunday.