The house was packed last night at the James F. Dean Theater in Summerville, and that crowd was not shy. Boisterous applause and copious laughter greeted the 26 performers that make up The Flowertown Players’ season opener, A Chorus Line.

It’s not surprising. A Chorus Line is a beloved musical theater classic, the seventh longest-running show in Broadway history, a Tony Award winner, and is packed with familiar numbers and interesting characters. Despite a few missteps, director David McLaughlin and the cast earn those laughs and applause.

Even if you’ve never seen A Chorus Line before, you’re probably already acquainted with some of its more famous numbers. “One” in particular is an oft sung, performed, and parodied piece of pop culture (I first learned it as a kid from a gag on The Simpsons).

The full show chronicles the efforts of a group of 17 hopefuls at a Broadway dance audition. The original 1975 show by director/choreographer Michael Bennett follows the dancers as they navigate the dance steps, singing, and interviews that may or may not lead to them getting this gig.

The songs by Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban speak to the inner fears and sordid histories of some of the dancers (not everyone is so thoroughly represented) while James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book highlights the complex relationships that can form between artists, and the contradictions of individuals competing to join a single cohesive unit.

For the most part, A Chorus Line is still lovely after all this time, though the show does have some issues that have not held up over the last 40 years. A Chorus Line is long, and really doesn’t need to be. Several sections feel as though they drag on and on interminably (I’m pretty sure “Hello Twelve” is a week-long musical number), and could use a modern trimming. Some of the characters, their stories and motivations, come off as either cliched or slightly insensitive with today’s standards. But on the whole it doesn’t all feel as dated as some other shows of that era.

I mentioned missteps — and they’re nothing that derail the proceedings. Set design by Ernie Eliason is functional with a cool mirror effect. Though the elaborate set pieces and effects of the curtain call confused me (why wasn’t at least one of those pieces used throughout the show?)

The finale is supposed to be special, but there were dream sequences that could have benefited from some of the things held until the very end. JC Conway’s lighting design was simple (fine) but the execution of some lighting cues left entire actors in darkness during the beginnings of their songs (not fine).

Directing a show this big requires a lot of balancing, and a strength here is that McLaughlin has assembled a very charming collection of hopefuls. The book doesn’t give every actor enough to to do, which is a shame for a cast of this size, and there was at least one character whose inclusion I questioned the necessity of outside having more bodies to cut. Shoutout to Olivia Gainey for committing heart and soul in every moment to a role that’s basically just a smiling face down front.

In a show about the people dancing behind stars, the star turn is provided by Alex Shanko’s Diana. Shanko brings humor, solid dancing, and one of the best (if not THE best) voices of the night. Her “Nothing” is superb and narrowly edges out the hilarious and pitch-perfect “Sing,” totally nailed by Cyril Langston and Caleb O’Neal, as the best musical number of this Chorus Line.

Oh, and I have to take a separate line here to mention an unsung hero of this production: Lindsay Cooper as stage manager Laura. A solid performance and so casually nailing those dance numbers. Brava!

One of the best non-musical scenes in the show concerns Connor Riley’s Paul. The youth’s story of his life, his homosexuality, and his path to the stage is one of the most emotional of the entire show. It’s joined by Cassie (played by Elissa Horrell) and her quest to return to the chorus after having broken out and failed. These character arcs are the backbone of this story. Without them, this would just be a musical review about dancers.

Which is why it’s disappointing that neither story arc lands with the emotional weight it could. Riley is honest and open during his second act monologue, and Horrell brings the pipes and moves to “The Music and the Mirror.” But both scenes could have used a little … more.

More direction might have been the answer. A clearer focus. Which is the main misstep here. McLaughlin, in giving us the entertaining aspects of A Chorus Line, doesn’t follow through with the individual character threads that make the emotional payoffs land.

For all the fun and funny dances and songs, A Chorus Line has a lot of deeply emotional and poignant things to say about people. These are the edges that have been sanded down or clipped, not sharpened as they could have been. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the few musicals to do so, because of how unflinchingly it portrayed its characters, their lives, their fears and dreams and insecurities. That was missing for me.

Michael Smallwood is an actor, writer, director, and teacher. He is a two-time KCACTF  award-winning playwright. His film credits include the Emmy-winning CBS series The Inspectors, the Netflix original movie Naked, and Halloween (2018).

He has been a contributor to the Charleston City Paper and Post and Courier since 2010.

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