Friday, July 10, 2009

Film review: 'Every Little Step' movingly depicts backstage reality show

The kick-line moment from A Chorus Line,
as seen in Every Little Step.



By Hap Erstein

If ever there were a natural angle for a documentary about a Broadway show, it would be to show the auditions for A Chorus Line, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about dancer hopefuls auditioning for a fictional Broadway show.

Even though having the idea and gaining the backstage access are much of the reason Every Little Step is such involving viewing, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern still deserve plenty of credit for the execution of this singular sensation of a film.

A Chorus Line premiered off-Broadway in 1975, a year after obsessive director-choreographer Michael Bennett gathered two dozen itinerant dancers, so-called Broadway “gypsies,” and recorded their life stories, expecting these hours of audiotape could somehow be transformed into an evening’s entertainment.

Every Little Step conveys the history of the show, thanks to fascinating archival footage of Bennett conducting those sessions, the tapes themselves and some grainy film of the show’s original cast in production. Contributing to the storytelling challenge is the fact that nearly all of the creative team has died, many from AIDS, including Bennett in 1987.

The sole survivors are composer Marvin Hamlisch and co-choreographer Bob Avian. Hamlisch is prominent in the film, spinning oft-told tales, like how the song Dance 10, Looks 3 became a hit with audiences only after its title was changed to not give away the punch line in the Playbill. Avian has become a prime torch bearer for the show, directing the 2006 revival whose auditions become the core of Every Little Step.

Bennett seems to have foreseen the advent of reality TV, for that is what A Chorus Line now feels like, and certainly what the revival auditions most resemble. In the show, the sadistic director puts his would-be cast members through an elimination gantlet for a long afternoon. For the actual auditions, the performers are kept in suspended animation for eight months, brought back countless times for further comparison.

The prime matchup is for the role of Cassie, the veteran dancer and former lover of the director, an almost-star trying to work her way back into the chorus. The two finalists for the plum part are Charlotte D’Amboise and Natascia Diaz, both close enough to gaining the role that they can taste it, and it probably helps the suspense if you do not know in advance which one prevailed.

Surely the most stunning audition is by a young actor named Jason Tam, who delivers the monologue of the character Paul, who started in show business in a sleazy club as a female impersonator. Tam enters and gives a reading of such originality and impact that he elicits tears from Avian and wins the role on the spot.

Your enjoyment of Every Little Step would be aided if you have some knowledge of A Chorus Line, but just as the show is about a more universal yearning than that of chorus dancers, the documentary can be seen as a metaphor for what we all go through for a job, particularly in these recessionary times.

Beyond the story of the creation of the original show and the revival, it is a statement of what performers go through to land a role, never knowing if the show will close on opening night. To see this film is to gain a renewed appreciation for what these highly trained creatures go through, for their art and for their rent money.

EVERY LITTLE STEP. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Directors: Adam Del Deo, James D. Stern; With Michael Bennett, Bob Avian, Marvin Hamlisch, Charlotte D'Amboise. Rated: PG-13. Venue: Emerging Cinemas, 709 Lake Ave., Lake Worth, today through Thursday, July 16. Call: (561) 586-6410.

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