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In Step

ae ChorusLine1‘A Chorus Line’ kicks off Cabrillo Stage season with a bang

The 1970s contributed much to our common slang, the vernacular we use to tell a story or set a mood. Musically, we were bequeathed the ominous repeating bass notes that could only mean a shark attack (Jaws), and on the other end of the spectrum we inherited the also-repeating two-note refrain that could only mean a chorus line, which, oddly enough, came from “A Chorus Line.” Theater fans—start rehearsing your unison bravos now, because Cabrillo Stage is opening its 2012 summer season with a production of this Tony Award-winning musical under the capable hands (and feet) of director and choreographer Janie Scott.

“I’ve waited a long time to do this. I’ve been asked many times over the years, but waited because I wanted it to be done the way I wanted it to be done,” explains Scott, demonstrating her renowned understated, yet incontestable will.

She is no stranger to the show, having played and understudied at least three of the female roles in national touring companies, and having worked with the show’s mastermind, Broadway legend Michael Bennett. Her plan is to remain faithful to the original 1975 production, including Bennett’s iconic original choreography.

“I’m honoring the original production,” she says. “I was lucky to work with Michael Bennett … there is something so special about it, the experience, and wanting to pass on what his vision was, and how he wanted to go about it.”

This is good news for audiences, but added pressure for the dancers. Scott points out she has “really been very picky about how that opening number looks, so if people have never seen the show they have a chance to say—oh, that’s what all the chatter was about, that’s what everyone was talking about.”

Joining Scott in the “Chorus Line” family, and bound to cause some impressions of his own, is Brian Conway, who plays Paul, the pivotal male character in the cast. Paul’s story—a revelation of his painful experience coming out to his parents, in an era arguably less prepared to handle such information—is not only as heart-wrenching today as ever, but was the first time homosexuality was presented on the Broadway stage in a dramatic and real manner.

“My goal with Paul is to take people on a journey, being as realistic as possible, being Paul but throwing in a little bit of Brian, too,” Conway divulges. “If you listen to what he has to say, there is something there for you. Everyone can identify something about themselves. Have I failed my child? Have I failed my parents?” 

This will be Conway’s third time playing the role of Paul, and it won’t be his last. After closing night, he will head to the Bay Area to reprise the role yet again. “I love the story it brings,” says Conway. “It touches me personally. It’s really funny because every single time I perform this, I feel like I’m auditioning. Every single time, whether I’m in rehearsal or on stage I will feel like—you know, we decided on someone else. It touches me so closely and it’s so real.”

The show has a deep connection with audiences, as well. It opened in 1975 and ran for 19 years. In 1983, it became Broadway’s longest running musical, and, when it closed, had tallied 6,137 performances. Since that time, only four shows have surpassed it.

ae ChorusLine2Song, dance, and all the drama you can stand merge together in “A Chorus Line,” opening at Cabrillo Stage this week.For those unfamiliar with the musical—it was the first non-narrative-driven success when it premiered—the plot, if it can be called that, is simple: At an audition for a Broadway production, a director and a choreography assistant choose 17 dancers. The director is looking for a dancing chorus of four boys and four girls, and he wants to learn more about them. They are then told to talk about themselves. That’s it.

The stories and characters are derived from informal group interviews that Bennett held with real working chorus dancers, or “gypsies,” as they were called. His goal was to honor the gypsies of Broadway, who built the necessary support for individual stars. The show was often dedicated “to anyone who has ever danced in a chorus or marched in step … anywhere.”

While fans were responsible for setting attendance records, critics shelled out awards. “A Chorus Line” won nine Tony Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, three Obie Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Not bad for a singing and dancing show about singing and dancing; a show with only a half-dozen mirrors for a set; a show with no curtain call or love story.

When the show opened, the format caused quite a ruckus. “You didn’t even know what you were looking at,” says Scott, remembering the first time she saw it. “No curtain, no overture, no set. You sat waiting for the overture and there isn’t one. Then the piano plinks and someone yells ‘again’ and the dancers start. What’s happening?” The beauty of the staging and the intricate maneuvering of song, dance and personal narratives were magical. “They created something that has a massive universal appeal,” she adds.

Scott plans to recreate that magic in Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater. “[I have] strong support from a creative staff, the kind of orchestra and pit I want, that can realize the incredible score, and a cast that is capable of doing what I want to do,” she says.

Among the cast are some familiar faces to Cabrillo Stage fans. They include Crystina Robinette and Bobby Maechessault (the stars of last season’s hit “Hairspray”), Lauren Bjorgan and Hugh Haiker (featured dancers in 2010’s “Swing!”), and—in true “Chorus Line” form—longtime gypsy Janice Engelgau, who will play Maggie, in her first breakout role.

From the opening number, “I Hope I Get It,” to the show’s familiar hits, “At the Ballet,” “What I Did For Love” and “One,” the story moves forward, backward, inside the characters and around the dark recesses of the human condition. Heady? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. It is a challenge to come away from this show without thinking, “I’m a Sheila … a Greg … a Diana … I’m a Paul.” But no matter the identifying character, and no matter the reason behind the familiarity, audience members leave feeling connected and represented. How does a story about dancers accomplish this?

One woman’s theory is that the journey from anonymous auditionee to individual and sympathetic character, and then back to indistinguishable chorus line member creates a safety net, a comfort zone for the casual onlooker. This circle in and out of the spotlight seems to provide balance between our shared desire to stand out and be special with our need to blend in and belong.

 And let’s be honest—everyone loves a kick line. 


“A Chorus Line” runs July 13-Aug. 12 at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. A post-show discussion with the director and cast will be held after the July 22 matinee. Tickets are
$15-42. For tickets, visit cabrillostage.com, or call 479-6154. This show includes adult themes and language. Photos: Jana Marcus

See GTv video where Greg and Kim audition for a A Chorus Line >

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