By Brittany Crowell
The 1980s saw a major transition in musical theater, beginning with the introduction of long-running Cats in 1981 and leading to Cameron Mackintosh’s big commercial productions at the end of the decade. The landscape of Broadway was shifting and changing in major ways, but then again, the industry that coined “the show must go on” continued to (in many ways) look very much the same.
According to the Chorus, produced by New Light Theater Project & The Journey Company, penned by Arlene Hutton, and directed by Chris Goutman premiered at 59 E 59th Street Theaters this April. The 90 minute play, a slice of life from the quick-change room of a Broadway musical in 1984 during its eighth year of performances, highlights a time of political and social unrest while also spotlighting certain aspects of the industry that remain (in some cases troublingly) true to this day.
The play observes a particular cast of characters that enter and exit a quick-change room through the lens of new stand-in dresser, KJ, an aspiring writer and previously a chorus girl herself, who is transitioning from the world of opera to the fast-paced quick-changes of Broadway. As KJ notes frantically in her journal, we observe chorus girls with eating disorders, diva complexes, and abusive boyfriends; moments of silence for chorus boys lost too soon to a new and under-researched virus; and a wardrobe crew who are greatly unappreciated for all of the hard work that they do.
Hutton masters the art of the ensemble piece, crafting dynamic personalities within the chorus and creating juicy through-lines for each of her characters throughout their journeys. Goutman’s directing helps encapsulate that specific hustle-and-bustle of the backstage life. Actors run in and out of the overly small space (designed with wonderfully specific stains and unmatched chairs and hangers by designer Brian Dudkiewicz) as quickly as it takes to change an outfit, bringing overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) energies into the space that linger as they themselves are there and then gone again. Sound design by The Roly Polys sets each scene with a traditional Broadway-style diddy (even shifting into tap-dance-worthy renditions of holiday music for the winter scenes) which fade to applause or a muted sound heard from a far-off stage as the scenes begin.
The women of the chorus are played by a strong ensemble of energetic performers who highlight their differences while showcasing the camaraderie felt between cast-members performing together for 8-shows a week.
As someone who has spent time in a backstage dressing room and has friends who work on Broadway as dressers, it’s clear that Hutton is speaking from experience and with a reverence towards the crews (wardrobe, stage management, and otherwise) and all of the work they do. She also takes a realistic look at how years in a repeat role can wear you down. Her wardrobe crew encompasses the trio of the senior dresser (played by a charmingly cynical Judith Hiller) who is stretching laundry calls and refusing to sew buttons, the experienced dresser (expertly performed by the zesty Karen Ziemba) who does her job, just her job, and leaves, and the newbie (Dana Brooke’s sympathetic KJ) who takes on her role and others and is always lending a hand and going the extra mile. Hutton observes each approach and explores the personalities with care and criticism neither exalting nor criticizing their approach but merely presenting a reality for the audience to observe and draw their own conclusions.
According to the Chorus is an enjoyable night out at the theater for both those who love it, familiar with its intricacies and challenges, and for those who are discovering its complicated charm for the first time. The play is a 90 minute peek into life behind the scenes and the community it takes to bring a show to life, told with love while acknowledging all of the challenges and complications (along with the rewards and comradery) that come along with a life in show-biz both in the 1980s, but also today.
ACCORDING TO THE CHORUS – by Arlene Hutton; directed by Chris Goutman
FEATURING: Karen Ziemba (Audrey); Judith Hiller (Brenda); Dana Brooke (KJ); Joy Donze (Linda); Tabatha Gayle (Monica); Kleo Mitrokostas (Jessica); Sofia Ayral-Hutton (Nicki); Ricki Lynée (Joyce); Kelly McCarty (Stacie); Will Sarratt (Van); Iraisa Ann Reilly (Mallory); Brandon Jones (Peter); & Lola (Olivia the Dog)
Scenic and props by Brian Dudkiewics; costumes by Kara Branch; lighting by Eric Nightengale; sound by The Roly Polys; Produced by New Light Theater Project in association with The Journey Company at 59E59 St Theaters: Elysabeth Kleinhans, president & founding artistic director; Val Day, artistic director; Brian Beirne, managing director. Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Through April 15. 59 E 59th St (Theater A). https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/according-to-the-chorus/