Vanguard’s ‘A Chorus Line’ is a singular sensation

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

MONTCLAIR, NJ — The cast of Vanguard Theater Co.’s production of “A Chorus Line” certainly scored well, with dance: 10; looks: 10; and vocals: 11.

The production is part of Vanguard’s Dream VTC initiative, a rigorous, by audition, preprofessional performance program for high school and college students. Though the performers were young, they amazed, eliciting raucous applause from the audience on Saturday, Jan. 7, during their opening-night performance.

“A Chorus Line” tells the story of professional dancers vying at a Broadway audition for just eight spots in a new show. Through high-energy songs, the dancers discuss how they got their starts in the business, challenges they have faced and their hunger for Broadway success. While the play can be a bit raunchy at times, this staging did pull some metaphorical punches, with a few of the more risque lines being left on the cutting-room floor. Still, most of the lines and songs were left intact, so parental discretion is advised.

While each cast member was sublime, some deserve an extra shoutout. Nia Rodriguez, who played Diana in the Nov. 7 show — some of the parts are double-cast, with different actors playing the roles in different performances — has a powerful, soulful voice. Her rendition of “Nothing” left the audience laughing at the punchlines and gasping at the soaring vocals. And her lead in “What I Did for Love” — a centerpiece of the show — was weighty and compelling. 

Riley Hahn, who played Cassie, brought a passion to the role that would have made Donna McKechnie, who originated the role on Broadway, proud. Even when Hahn was not the focus of a particular scene, she still had stage presence. And her performance of “The Music and the Mirror” expertly showcased her singing and acting chops. 

Lukas Galfano, who played Paul, stood out for his acting. His monologue to the director, Zach, played by Jason Tyler Smith, was heartbreaking and elicited such genuine emotion from the audience. Galfano moved audience members to tears as he recounted coming out, quitting school and his relationship with his parents.

Going in the other emotional direction, Nicky Kaider, playing Mike, brought a fun and energetic vibe to the theater as he performed “I Can Do That.” As he leapt across the stage — showing off his clear dancing talent — he made the audience laugh with his character’s eager attitude and amusing delivery. Similarly, Ayla Schwartz, as Val, was enchanting as she sang “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” one of the more ribald songs in the show. While that song can come off as too over-the-top, Schwartz kept it on the ground, giving just the right amount of oomph in the right places and a lovely vivacity to the song as a whole.

Though it comes early in the show, “At the Ballet,” when done right, can be a showstopper. And it was done right on the VTC stage. Zee Happonen as Sheila, Jada Jane Clark as Bebe and Orly Kinsella as Maggie found the perfect balance between harsh and ethereal, which is what the song needs. While these characters’ backstories are brutal, they feel peace and acceptance at ballet class. Kinsella in particular had a voice that raised the rafters.

All of the performers, whether mentioned here or not, were highly impressive. Their names will likely be in lights on Broadway in the next few years. “A Chorus Line” audience members will have the joy of being able to say, “I saw them perform back when.”

Admittedly, there were some issues with the show — though none of those issues came from the performers. Firstly, VTC had some opening-night kinks to work out; the show started late as they worked to fix the lighting system, which they ultimately did. Nevertheless, even this hiccup proved to be charming, as Vanguard founding artistic director Janeece Freeman Clark and managing director Jessica Sporn took to the stage to discuss VTC’s programming and upcoming events, to praise the show’s cast and crew, and to discuss the history of “A Chorus Line.” The musical was created by stitching together narratives from several taped workshop sessions with Broadway dancers — including eight who eventually appeared in the original 1975 cast. “A Chorus Line” provides a complete picture of the life of a Broadway dancer, from the highest highs to the lowest lows.

Even if the lights had not been fixed, it would not have mattered, because the cast shone so brightly themselves.

The second issue, which could not be fixed, is that the theater itself is poorly arranged, making it difficult for many audience members to see the stage. Luckily, the traditional set for “A Chorus Line” features mirrors along the back wall, which did help audience members see a bit more of the dancing. Nevertheless, it was a shame that the young performers worked so hard and learned such intense choreography — the same choreography as in the original 1975 production — and the audience couldn’t see all of it.

Despite this, the show was fantastic. The vocals and acting were professional and the dancing, what the audience could see of it, was superb.

The show runs at the VTC theater, 180 Bloomfield Ave. in Montclair, through Jan. 15. Tickets may be purchased at

Photos Courtesy of Vanguard Theater Co.

UPDATE: Vanguard Theater Co. has reached out and stated that it is working diligently to improve the sightlines for all seats in the theater, and has already made many improvements.