`A Chorus Line': lots of legs, but not much heart

A string of young singers and dancers, each one dreaming of stardom, lines up across the front of a Broadway stage. Before them sits a tough-as-nails casting director who wants to peer beneath their talents into their lives, their personalities, maybe their very souls. One by one, as we look on, they bare their dreams, memories, and emotions in words and music. In the end some are chosen for a chance to realize their hopes. And some are not. That's the idea behind ``A Chorus Line.'' Onstage, it's the longest-running musical in Broadway history, with a Pulitzer Prize to its credit. Given such near-legendary success, it isn't surprising that many a filmmaker has pondered ways of translating it to the screen -- including such powerful talents as Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet, and even Joseph Papp, a member of the original production's creative team.

But along with a financial stumbling block -- the high cost of royalties -- they ran into an artistic problem: how to make the show into a full-fledged movie in its own right, not just a photographed stage play.

The director who finally met this challenge head on, and carried the project all the way to completion, is far from the most likely candidate. Sir Richard Attenborough has built his filmmaking fame on epics like ``A Bridge Too Far'' and his Oscar-winning biography of Gandhi -- big, bulging pictures with hundreds of characters swarming through harsh landscapes in the service of Socially Conscious Cinema.

But song-and-dance movies can be socially conscious, too. Sir Richard knows this as well as anyone else, having started his directorial career in 1969 with ``Oh! What a Lovely War,'' a pacifist musical. So he took an interest in ``A Chorus Line'' when it crossed his path, with its potentially poignant portraits of young people longing for their own place in the world. And anyway, he told me recently, he was hoping for a change-of-pace picture between ``Gandhi'' and his next project, a drama with an an ti-apartheid slant.

Although it's on a smaller scale than the earlier pictures I've mentioned, ``A Chorus Line'' offered Attenborough his favorite sort of task: a logistics problem. In this case it didn't involve crowding the screen with spectacle, but rather, generating visual interest with a comparatively small cast in a very limited setting. Making the task even more daunting, he rejected the idea of ``opening up'' the material as stage-to-screen adaptations usually do. Instead he chose to keep almost every scene locked

into the single location -- a theater auditorium -- that the show's concept calls for.

Unfortunately, the weak link in Attenborough's filmmaking has always been its human dimension -- its ``heart,'' as they say in the trade. His movies tend to look like the logistical exercises they are, full of ideas and cinematics but oddly cold at their core.

``A Chorus Line'' is no exception. Some of its revelatory scenes are very touching, especially near the end, when we learn which characters have succeeded and which haven't. But the show's format proves too slippery for the director to manage properly. The stagebound setting gets boring; the action doesn't build a steady momentum; and the characters do far too much hanging around until the camera's ready to point at them again.

Adding to the problem, the cast is as uneven as a real-life audition line might be, and some of the performances are way below par -- an actress shows ``simplicity'' by knocking her knees, an actor works so hard to be ``lovable'' that you want to throw something at him. The pivotal figure of the casting director is played by Michael Douglas with a one-note intensity that's out of balance with the movie's overall tone. And the sex-related material, which may have seemed daring when the play was new, will

grate on the sensibilities of some viewers even when it's not downright trite or vulgar.

``A Chorus Line'' was mostly shot at the fine old Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York. Attenborough's collaborators include editor John Bloom and cinematographer Ronnie Taylor. Jeffrey Hornaday, of ``Flashdance'' fame, did the choreography.

The film is rated PG-13, reflecting four-letter language, an anatomically obsessed musical number, and talk about homosexuality.

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