Picks and Pans Review: A Chorus Line

UPDATED 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/16/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

The wave of dread starts early. You notice that, with rare exceptions, the dancers don't sweat. Director Richard (Gandhi) Attenborough's Chorus Line is a sanitized, homogenized, conventionalized film version of the most successful musical in Broadway history. If you've never seen this milestone show onstage, where it belongs and blossoms, you may cadge some enjoyment out of watching an eager cast of newcomers strut onscreen. And the socko finish is a rouser. Still, this $24 million extravaganza is an empty shell, so cautious it lacks even the sleazy energy of a real desecration. A Chorus Line's original director-choreographer, Michael Bennett, fashioned theatrical magic from a simple premise: 17 dancers stand on an empty stage vying for eight spots in the chorus of a Broadway musical. What is it that drives talented kids to face rejection for a place on this anonymous line? Bennett dug his answers out of life, taping interviews with real gypsies (slang for chorus people); Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban provided a score that celebrated every dancer who ever marched in step. Perhaps Attenborough and screenwriter Arnold (Funny Lady) Schulman thought this too New Yorky for a national audience. Their solution—beefing up the dutiful love story between the show's featured dancer, Alyson Reed, and the director, Michael Douglas-misses the point and muffles the emotion. So does turning a dancer's anthem to her craft, What I Did for Love, into a ballad that Reed torch sings to Douglas. With the monotony of a metronome, Attenborough trots out each member of his cast for a close-up show-and-tell. Under this hothouse staging, the performers visibly wilt. Choreographer Jeffrey (Flashdance) Hornaday's halfhearted attempts to update the dancing for the '80s also misfire. Surprise, Surprise, a new number performed by the talented Gregg Burge, plays like a Vegas disco routine or, worse, like something out of Travolta's Staying Alive. A sprinkling of vitality does come through: a flashy opening no less effective for being cribbed from Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, the welcome sass from Vicki Frederick and Matt West, and a touching version of At the Ballet, a song that links dance and childhood longing with agonizing simplicity. But A Chorus Line, a Broadway baby to the end, simply won't be torn from its theatrical stomping grounds. (PG-13)

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