Near the end of Michael Bennett’s landmark 1975 musical, A Chorus Line, the hard-edged director asks a question of the young hoofers auditioning for an unnamed Broadway musical: “What do you do when you can’t dance any more?” In the original Broadway staging, the question was a set up for the show’s much-loved anthem, “What I Did for Love.”
In this semi-staged version — produced by Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theatre RED — the question (asked by Joe Picchetti) resonates in a different way. While the original Chorus Line characters were based on real interviews with young and hungry Broadway dancers, many of the actors in this production have been doing what they “had to do” for 20, 30 or even 40-some years. Sure Broadway chorus “boys and girls” (as they are called in this show) reach a career expiration date as they approach forty. But many of the performers on this stage — the 27-person cast is a blend of veterans and relative newcomers — have made a life in the theater: acting, dancing, singing, directing, teaching and running companies.
That’s the spirit of this Chorus Line, a tribute to some of Milwaukee’s hardest working folks in show business. It’s a testament to their talent, can-do inventiveness, and just plain chutzpah. Director Jill Anna Ponasik — along with Theater RED’s Marcee Doherty-Elst — has shaped the show to de-emphasize the ligament-straining dance numbers, instead creating a lovely paean to the Milwaukee theater world.
It hits home beautifully in “The Music and the Mirror” (here sung passionately by Beth Mulkerron). In the original, the song segues into Cassie’s show-stopping dance solo, a number that revels in her continued love for dance despite her age. Here, instead of focusing on one character’s tenacious pursuit of her art, “the mirror” offers a video tribute to the decades of theater created by the dozens of Milwaukeeans onstage.
There is dancing, of course. Choreographer James Zager recreates some of the classic routines from the original musical — the rehearsal-hall opening and the classic kick line of “One Singular Sensation.” But much of the story is delivered by actors standing still on that iconic white line stretching across the length of the stage. They tell their stories, in speeches and through the show’s much-loved musical numbers, by composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban. (The solid music direction here is from Ryan Cappleman). David Flores soft-shoes his way through an energetic “I Can Do That.” Doug Jarecki and Karen Estrada are comic perfection in “Sing!” Angela Iannone, Jenny Wanasek and Melissa Kelly Cardamone sing a touching “At the Ballet.” And Doherty-Elst struts her stuff through “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.”
Rána Roman offers a spirited version of “Nothing,” but it’s her tenderly introspective “What I Did for Love?” that will stay with me. Rather than making it a belt-it-out anthem from the start, Roman sings the first few lines in a tentative and quiet rubato, letting the conviction build as the song goes on and the rest of the cast joins in. The modesty of this production doesn’t allow for the original finale — the ovation-inspiring kick-line in full top hats and sequins. But the 300-plus theater lovers in the audience Sunday night knew that a new season loomed ahead. There would be plenty of singular sensations in the months, and years, to come.