Look, Ma…

I almost passed up Every Little Step in my dance-hungry search through the library DVDs. I had heard about the Chorus Line revival of 2006 and dismissed it as a dumb idea. The first few bars of the opening audition number (“Da duh-duh Da duh-duh-duh DUH DUH”) sound even more dated than all those Dave Grusin soundtracks from roughly the same late 70s period (catch a few minutes of And Justice for All to see what I mean). So I avoided this documentary about casting for the revival primarily because I thought it would be kinda pathetic. I moved to the city in ’84 and saw a few musicals past their prime, including a hoary production of Michael Bennett’s other monster hit, Dreamgirls. I figured Every Little Step would provide that same feeling of slight sadness and embarassment. But last night demanded some non-demanding entertainment, so into the bedroom computer it went.

Within 5 minutes, I ejected it and moved to the living room, where the spouse lay groaning on the couch in misery from his semi-annual season-changing allergy attack. I said, “You’ll love this.” To the degree he could keep his eyes open – a good portion of the middle was accompanied by quiet snoring – he did.

First off, the movie throws you back to the good old days when the spouse and I were plotting, separately, to get to NY, NY, with footage of the old Times Square, with extremely beat-up video of the original show alongside audio of the taped midnight confessional that inspired the whole thing. The documentary features a great, non-gushing tribute to Bennett as it showcases real dancers with some mileage (not the grinning children of So You Think You Can Dance) strutting their butts off to get a part.

As with so many shows, songs that sound grating on the soundtrack album make a fair amount of sense in context. That said, the score creaks like bad joints on a rainy day, and it’s not a huge surprise that the show, however well cast, closed after a year; the ghastly, literal-minded Disney fodder that lasts for years on today’s Broadway has the Teflon of blending in to the mushy current consumer audioscape. There are some “ouch my ears” moments, including of one of the women cast, there is the insufferable Tyce D’Orio providing a moment of schadenfreude (he ends up being cut due to his out-of-control ego), and there is a mystifying decision made as to the girl who eventually sings “Tits and Ass.”

But there’s also the delightful Charlotte D’Amboise – I was lucky to catch her in the Chicago revival and she’s one helluva lot closer to Gwen Verdon than the negative double threat of Renee Zellwegger in the dreadful movie. There’s a performance by a guy named Jason Tam who will probably not ever be a household word that brings everyone watching, on film at least, to tears and shows the power of honest acting.

Tam’s understated truth brought into laser focus the conundrum of stage acting: It’s so damn hammy, at least in America. One of the first things my wonderful teacher at Cornell, George Touliatos, growled at us as we floundered through our initial monologues was, “God, I’ve never seen so many two-handed actors.” He meant the way people get on stage and immediately make every single gesture completely symmetrical. I don’t know if George saw this – he’s still around, and actually had a recurring role as a doctor on X Files – but if he did, the number of people lifting their hands sideways at the same time surely caused a string of profanity. You see actors become desperate, unfunny, and, kiss of death, unlikeable in just a couple of words, as clear as the difference between marking the moves and really dancing. You also understand why some people are just never going to make it; there’s something about them or their stage presence that is just, somehow, not what anyone wants. It’s tempting to ascribe it to some gap in their confidence, but it seems more like it’s in their self-perception. All these folks believe they deserve to, if not be stars, have their Moment, and yet you, like the directors, find them easily rejectable.

In the end, the movie paints a portrait of that now nearly invisible breed, the stage gypsy, that’s as fresh and intriguing as Chorus Line was when it originally came out. And it makes you wonder, particularly as you listen to the very beginnings of the thing on those tapes, why no one’s come up with anything quite like it sincw.

I do continue to hope that there will be a renaissance of live theater, which is after all the ultimate in 3D entertainment, but that would demand that there were actually some decent plays being written. It’s a lost art. But the material’s there. Every Little Step proves that, even if theatre is dead, theatre people remain fascinating.

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