Gritty ‘Chorus Line’; Glamorous ‘Medea’ on London Stage

Social critique and leotards: It’s a surprising mix.

The 1975 hit musical “A Chorus Line” has its first major West End revival at the London Palladium, and the grit at the heart of the show comes across more clearly than ever.

A group of 28 hopefuls is auditioning to be in the chorus of an unnamed Broadway musical. Gradually their numbers are whittled down. Only eight will be chosen.

The battle-scarred wannabes tell their stories, which are loosely based on real-life interviews, in songs (by Marvin Hamlisch) and monologues.

Sheila (a superb Leigh Zimmerman), impossibly leggy and tough as nails, reveals cracks in her facade as she tells how a broken home drove her to the stage in “At the Ballet.”

Cassie (Scarlett Strallen) failed miserably in California and needs a job. Diana (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in show-stopping form) tells how she had to fight a spiteful teacher in “Nothing.”

They’re all battling to become mere faceless members of the chorus. Under the fixed smiles, they’re all frightened. Their chosen job market has a habit of chewing them up and spitting them out. What will they do when they can’t hoof anymore?

As employers cut back around us, those fears will sound familiar to anyone outside the world of tights and tap shoes. The critique of the free market is all the sharper for its subtlety and sugar coating.

Bob Avian, who co-choreographed the original Broadway production, directs the show (in period 1975 costumes) with flair. The dancing is fluid, the bare-box stage full of energy.

A couple of the actors aren’t as sparky as their colleagues, and it feels a mistake for the two-hour show not to have an interval. Still, the hit tunes work their magic. The grit is surprising and compelling. Rating: ****.

ENO’s ‘Medea’

There’s another surprise at English National Opera, where Charpentier’s opera “Medea” receives its first U.K. production, 320 years after its premiere.

It turns out to be a wonderful stage vehicle. (There’s an excellent 1995 recording with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson which had already shown the music to be gorgeous.)

The plot is based on the familiar Greek legend. The sorceress Medea works a terrible vengeance on Jason, her unfaithful warrior lover. She kills their little sons, even though she adores them, to punish him.

Mirrored Room

David McVicar serves the piece up beautifully. He sets the action during World War II, in a mirrored room within an elegant rococo palace (sets by Bunny Christie), and incorporates the four ballet sequences with style.

When Cupid (an excellent Aoife O’Sullivan) arrives for the Act 2 masque in a large aircraft decorated in red glitter, the production reaches amusing heights of spectacle.

A few moments don’t quite hit the target. When Medea calls up demons from hell to assist her revenge, the resulting ballet of vicious female wraiths fails to generate the expected chills.

Conductor Christian Curnyn doesn’t master all of the rhythmic complexities of the score, partly because of the small sound of the reduced orchestra in such a large auditorium.

When Sarah Connolly (Medea) is on stage, none of it matters. Her powerhouse performance is a marvel of restraint and release. Katherine Manley (Creusa) and Brindley Sherratt (her father Creon) offer excellent support too.

If the role of Jason feels a little high for tenor Jeffrey Francis, he creates a complex portrait of a conflicted man.

Rating: ****.

“A Chorus Line” is at the London Palladium. Information: +44-844-412-2957.

“Medea” is at English National Opera. Information: or +44-20-7845-9300.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)