Towards the end of A CHORUS LINE, FAU Festival Rep’s final production of the summer, a question is posed about whether musical theater will even survive. It made me smile knowing that this musical written by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, with music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, not only survived from April 1975 to April 1990 (the first Broadway show to exceed 6,000 performances!), but also won a Tony in 1984 for being Broadway’s Longest-Running Musical. In addition to Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and more, a Pulitzer for Drama and a Best Musical Olivier Award to boot. So it’s hardly surprising that this American classic remains a favorite regional production choice to this day – embraced for its impressive dance numbers, memorable songs, and the raw revelations of its “chorus line” cast.
I have a feeling that with Hollywood at a virtual standstill as the Writers Guild of America’s strike is now joined by the SAG-AFTRA screen actors union, consumers hungry for original content will take a fresh look at the world’s oldest form of entertainment. Both Greece and China developed theatrical performances as early as the sixth century BCE, while public Chinese ceremonial dances date as far back as 2,205 BCE. Maybe new-movie-deprived masses will turn to live theater. At least I hope so. As for musicals, we in South Florida enjoy at least half-a-dozen excellent, mainstage theaters that specialize in musical fare, particularly popular Broadway hits. But we also support a few smaller companies who prefer to mount world- and regional musical premieres. In short, the musical appears alive and well … at least in our neck of the woods.
But I still must commend Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance and their students – many of whom are MFA graduate program participants – for daring to choose as iconic and beloved a show as “A Chorus Line.” They have big shoes to fill. Stage manager Marisa Figueras explained that while respecting tradition, they were also looking for a fresh twist. Based on the overwhelmingly positive response by their theater-savvy audience, they succeeded on both counts. The talent that was both on view, and behind the scenes, was absolutely first rate. FAU’s chorus line performers may not have all outwardly looked like the typical Broadway lineup, but they could act, sing and dance with the best of them. Thanks to the guidance of some really great and experienced instructors.
Led by dance captain Daniella Dara Coby as choreographer Lara, up front, the cast of A CHORUS LINE give their all for a dance audition at FAU’s final Festival Rep production of the summer. Playing now through July 30 at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre in Boca Raton. (Photo by: Morgan Sophia Photography)
Standing at the helm as director of the 27-member student cast was Matt Stabile, the venerated, long-time producing artistic director of FAU’s resident professional company, Theatre Lab. Award-winning music director Caryl Fantel served as music director, conductor and pianist of their LIVE 10-piece student orchestra backstage. And acclaimed choreographer Jerel Brown, whose name you’ll recognize from many recent musical hits in our area, was tapped to choreograph this student production.
And here are some names you might not immediately recognize – but one day can proudly say “I knew them when.” Scenic designer Aubrey Kestell, costume designer Dawn Shamburger, lighting designer Ashley Hyde, sound designer Harmon Casey, and technical director Zach Pitchman.
The show opens from total blackout to a stage brimming with dancers in leotards and workout clothes practicing audition routines for a new Broadway musical. The show’s director Zach (Kyle Smith) watches from his raised perch among the audience, around third row center, but occasionally strides up onto the stage. He’s joined by his assistant, choreographer Lara (Daniella Dara Coby) who replaces the male “Larry” in the original. She’s a great dancer (not surprising, as she’s also listed as dance captain) and rocks her role as a woman, while several female cast members, dressed to resemble men, assume the parts of male dancers quite nicely. You immediately feel the energy and angst from the full company’s opening number of “I Hope I Get It” through “God I really blew it” culminating in “I really need this job.”
Foreshadowing the theme of the show – wherein each chorus line aspirant is asked to reveal a lot more than their stage/real name, age and hometown – is when they hold up their pictures and resumes. Matched by the song: “Who am I anyway? Am I my resume? …That is a picture of a person I don’t know.”
But we do get to know each and every one of them because director Zach won’t let up in his quest to uncover what really makes them tick. It’s as if he feels that only after learning their secrets and deepest passions can he decide who to include in a strong chorus line of eight – four boys and four girls.
Mike’s (Mitchell Worell-Olson) up first, with the story of how as a young child he’d followed his sister to her dance classes and decided “I Can Do That.” It’s tough to open up about one’s formative years and relationship to dance. Everyone’s story is unique and yet indicative of the myriad roads taken to realize their Broadway dreams. And while hesitant to share at first “…And…” featuring Richie (Doriyan De’Angelo Caty), Val (Daniela Moon), Judy (Caroline Slagle) and company, the dream proves stronger than any fear or shyness. In the end, we get to hear everyone’s backstory and this mismatched crew of chorus-line wannabees bond together in mutual respect.
Sheila (Cait Siobhan Kiley), who earns most of Zach’s reprimands for her smart-ass attitude, shares how, like her mom (who gave up her ballet dream when she married), she first wanted to be a prima ballerina. She joins Bebe (Olivia Beebe) and Maggie (Nuelle “Elle” Saunders) in the lovely number, “At the Ballet.”
“All I ever needed was the music and the mirror.” Sarah Sun Park as director Zach’s old flame, Cassie, fights for her right to return the chorus line, with pride. (Photo by: Morgan Sophia Photography)
Like young people in pursuit of their dreams through the decades, these dancers land in NYC from across the country, though there are Manhattan and outer borough natives among them. There’s often humor to their personal recollections, as well. Like outspoken Puerto Rican Diana (Valeria Illan) who hails from the Bronx and disses an acting teacher who required the class to embody objects like a table, so she reached deep inside, but felt… “Nothing.”
Another outrageously funny part is when airhead dancer Kristine (Ashley Brooke Miller) laments being tone deaf and proceeds to prove it, loudly, to all while her husband Al (powerful singer Anthony Blatter, who also served as vocal captain) keeps completing her sentences in “Sing!” I find it unintentionally hilarious when Daniela Moon as Val, who looks like the perfect blonde bombshell, laments not being chosen for a Rockette because she’s “ugly” in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” But then in an obviously sexist song of the times (though not all that much has changed), she extols the virtues of her surgically enhanced “tits and ass.” Meanwhile 4’10” Connie (Sarah Romeo) laments her diminutive stature, but boy can she dance!
We get early inklings of something personal going on between Zach and Cassie (Sarah Sun Park) when he constantly corrects her during their first run through. But it’s only toward the end that their issues, and history, are revealed. She shines bright in “The Music and the Mirror” and when joining the company in “One”…singular sensation. While Zach’s dream was to make her a star, Cassie defends her pride in being part of a group where “everyone is special and wonderful.” When Paul (Joel Rodriguez) falls down in pain during “Tap Dance” (having returned to dance too soon after knee surgery), everyone and everything stops till he’s administered to and taken to the hospital.
But Paul’s sudden exit leads Zach to ask the group what they’d do if they could no longer dance – a difficult question none seem ready to face. Valeria Illan as Diana once again showcases her remarkable voice, leading the company in “What I Did For Love.” Followed by a reprise of that other “Chorus Line” classic, “One, singular sensation…” to which, one by one, and then all together, the entire company dances across the stage in identical dazzling tuxes for the guys and matching glittery dresses and tap shoes for the gals as they take their bows.
Catch the show that must hold special resonance for all theater and dance students about to embark on careers that will include many casting calls of their own. As Matt Stabile relates in his Director’s Note: “’A Chorus Line’ provided an invaluable opportunity to offer students some insight into the past and current realities of the professional world they will soon enter. We spent A LOT of time in rehearsals discussing things like: Power Dynamics, Appropriate Pay Scales, Work/Life Balance, and exploring ways to disentangle Career from Personal Identity.” Good to hear. I can’t imagine a better mentor in those areas (who’s also walked the walk) than Matt!
Don’t miss your chance to see the future chorus line (and stars) of tomorrow by attending FAU’s Dept. of Theatre and Dance’s final Festival Rep production of A CHORUS LINE today. Only playing through July 30 at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre at Florida Atlantic University’s main campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton 33431. For tickets and directions to free parking, go to www.fau.edu/festivalrep. For info about and tickets to their upcoming season of student shows, as well as Theatre Lab Mainstage professional productions and more, visit fau.events.com. Or call 561-297-6124.