By Kevin Zimmerman
It is no coincidence that “A Chorus Line” opens with the actors’ backs to the audience.
These are people whose careers are made by staying in the background and making the star look good.
But the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, now in a phenomenal 40th anniversary production at The Secret Theatre, puts 17 of these gypsies into the much-deserved spotlight.
The show, expertly directed by Tom Rowan, begins on a high note and only goes up from there.
As crafted by legendary director Michael Bennett in the mid-1970s, “A Chorus Line” follows a group of dancers auditioning for a new Broadway musical.
But this audition turns out to be unlike any other they have taken part in before.
The director wants to know more about the eight actors he plans to hire—four boys, four girls—than if they can sing and dance. He asks each of them to tell him something about their lives.
With that simple query, the performers take turns singing, dancing and explaining what drives them to perform.
Some of the stories are humorous and charming like the one from Mike, who is played by the talented and funny Jonny Stein. In “I Can Do That” he tells about how he went from watching his sister in dance class to taking her place. Stein blows away the audience with his acrobatic moves across the Secret’s small stage, ending with a perfectly executed back flip.
Another joyous number, “Sing!,” is a duet between married couple Al and Kristine, portrayed by Kevin Lagasse and Adrian Grace Bumpas, which shows how Kristine, while a terrific dancer, is unable to carry a tune.
The two begin a call-and-response routine, where Bumpas, delightfully off-key, sets up Lagasse for the tuneful payoff.
The show-stopping comedic point comes when Val, played by an amazing Devon Frieder, describes how a visit to the plastic surgeon pushed her career to the next level in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.”
But there are also somber and bittersweet moments throughout the show.
Madeline Fansler, who nails the world-weary and sarcastic Sheila, joins Julia Garber and Amanda Phillips in the soulful “At the Ballet.” These three women describe how during their unhappy childhoods the only thing that saved them was taking ballet lessons and the knowledge that “everything is beautiful at the ballet.”
And while the entire cast does a great job, three performers stand out.
As Paul—modeled after Bennett—Drew Michael Gardner moves the audience with his monologue about growing up gay in the Bronx and recounting the night his parents discovered he was performing in a drag show.
Geena Quintos pulls double duty as choreographer and in the role of Diana.
She gets the opportunity to perform one of the funnier songs, “Nothing,” about how one should not listen to critics, and “What I Did for Love,” a sober reminder of life’s uncertainty.
However, it is Jennifer Knox as Cassie who dances away with the show.
Out of work and running out of options, Cassie is attempting to return to the chorus, even though she had broken out years earlier and was on her way to being a star.
Of course things do not always work out as planned and she spends much of the show pleading with the director, who is also her ex-lover, to let her try for a spot in the line.
For more than six minutes in “The Music and the Mirror,” Knox holds the audience in rapt attention as she alternatives between moving like a prima ballerina and a go-go dancer while explaining through song why she needs this chance.
“God, I’m a dancer. A dancer dances,” Knox sings.
Cassie succeeds in securing her spot in the background, but it is clear that is not where she and Knox will stay for long.
If You Go
“A Chorus Line”
When: Through Feb. 14
Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City
Contact: (718) 392-0722
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimm