March 30, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
We’ve all seen it: it’s an advertising image as familiar as two yellow cat eyes or two witches. It’s the row of dancers standing in a straight line that has been used for just about every A Chorus Line produced over the past forty-eight years. But in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s current production of Michael Bennett’s masterful musical, written by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Ed Kleban, director Blake Robison has gone for something different all the way down the line. With the permission of Concord Theatricals, which licenses the property, new changes have been made to its set and costumes creating a new Chorus Line without altering a word in the script or a note of music.
As the Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director, Blake Robison is himself directing A Chorus Line, timed to this Cincinnati institution’s 50th anniversary. Also, with its brand new state-of-the-art Mo and Jack’s Place — the Rouse Theatre, built with generous donations totaling $50 million dollars (and raised during the pandemic, no less) assures a forward look and feel into the next half century. On a personal note: the stage of the very theatre torn down to make way for this new one is where I got my Actors Equity card forty-four years ago this month.
To watch the work of choreographer Alex Sanchez, I was invited to a rehearsal in New York City last month to witness how this Chorus Linewas being shaped. My timing was fortunate in that I got to see part of the staging for “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love” and observe how the psychological underpinnings of the seventeen dancers were being explored and nurtured. It is well known that the tension built-in to this musical is due to the characters’ livelihoods being on the line. Every one of them “needs this job” and the demands of Zach, the director of the show (within the show), is asking them to dig deep and bare their souls. When Sanchez told his dancers that they “need to connect to emotion and turn chaos into community,” his words rang true. Community is at the heart of A Chorus Line and accomplishing that is the only way for the show to succeed as a whole. Sanchez continually asked questions of the cast while choreographing, deepening everyone’s motivations in this very detailed number in order to specify their characterizations. When one actor shared what their innermost thought was in a given moment, Sanchez told them “I want to hear that story and I want to know that story!” Then it was up to the actor to convey that through the few lines the song gives them. Easier said than done, but clearly on the right path.
While doing this, both Robison and Sanchez are also reinventing A Chorus Line in ways rarely, if ever, attempted before. Stripping away some of its most iconic elements, it doesn’t take place on the bare stage of a theatre anymore, but rather in a large rehearsal studio. Not only does this allow for a chance to utilize props natural to that setting for the staging and choreography, something the original could not, but also add more realism in the sense that dancers don’t audition in Broadway theatres like they once did in the 70s. And where does that put Zach, who is always somewhere out in the house on his “voice of God” mic? Well, he’s right there in the room for the first time, which gives a sense of intimacy that’s never been a part of A Chorus Line before, as well as allow the audience to watch his reactions to the drama that is unfolding. As Robison describes it, “we removed the apron from our stage and instead of filling it with another two rows of seats, we put an audition table down there. So Zach sits off the front edge of the stage and he’s there the entire time. You can see all their resumes spread out, all his cigarettes and his coffee… the whole point is to give people the feeling of what it’s like to be in that room.”
What set designer Tim Mackabee has created is boldly dynamic in that it allows the rehearsal studio/audition space to serve as almost another character, while it also seamlessly transitions to a theatre stage when the play reaches its razzmatazz finale.
Costume designer Kathleen Geldard has also rethought a great deal about how the characters are dressed for this production. When I saw her drawings that were taped to the wall of the rehearsal room, I was particularly impressed that she had gone out of her way to have all the dance bags individualized to fit each of the specific personalities. That sort of imagination is everything.
“Everyone was freed up by the environment that we created,” Robison explained, “which encouraged them to find the characters on their own, sort of relieving them of the burden of following past choices and finding their own way in… I believe it’s helped them stay relaxed and find fresh interpretations. It gave them agency to respond to some of the harder stuff in the book. Like when Zach says something particularly aggressive towards someone. Not adding lines of course, but in your response. How you catch somebody’s eye or put your hand on a shoulder to give them a little support? Things like that.”
After eleven years in Cincinnati, Robison is finally getting to do the musical that prompted his interest in the theatre as a pre-teen. “I saw the original Chorus Line on Broadway and it was the moment I realized this was what I wanted to do with my life… so it was fun for me to revisit my youth. Coming back to it as an adult, you hear new things in it and you respond to different characters in different ways, which was fun for me. And also the challenge of the reinvention. I was so thrilled to work with Alex and thrilled to get permission to bring new ideas to it. But with that comes a lot of responsibility and a certain degree of anxiety. You don’t want to be cavalier about it, you certainly don’t want to ruin anything, but it didn’t take me long to realize that great theatre, great plays, great musicals allow for that. It can withstand new ideas and new interpretations.”
On opening night, March 16th, the grand opening of the theatre was honored to have as its special guest, Donna McKechnie, the 1976 Tony Award Winner for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Cassie. No stranger to the Playhouse, she had played Desiree in A Little Night Music in 2000. What her presence meant to the company of actors couldn’t be described in words, especially due to what it meant for them to be on stage at all. “We’re emerging from a pandemic in which there was literally no work for actors for nearly two years,” Robison stated in a press release. “When they sing, ‘God, I hope I get it … I really need this job,’ that sentiment is raw and real.”
In the words of a lyric from another great musical, “Who could ask for anything more?”
A Chorus Line runs through April 15th. If you’re in the Cincinnati area and are interested in purchasing tickets, call the Playhouse Box Office at 513–421–3888 or visit www.cincyplay.com.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.