Truly a Singular Sensation

Milwaukee Opera’s radical production of A Chorus Line inverts the ages of performers.

By - Aug 28th, 2017 01:06 pm
Mark Bucher, Beth Mulkerron, Angela Iannone. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.

Mark Bucher, Beth Mulkerron, Angela Iannone. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.

Think of it as A Chorus Line inverted. In the original musical the director handling the auditions is older and the dancers he auditions are younger. In this production the director is one of the younger people on the stage and his victims are mostly the middle aged and older veteran body types from Milwaukee’s professional, semi-professional and community stages.

Throwing them together reveals a unity of vocal ability and musical comedy flair these performers are seldom given a shot at as the years advance and the strictures of perfect form and “sexy” marketability intrude. Doing it their way forces new expectations on choreographer Michael Bennett’s creation of more than 40 years ago – and on us, the audience, assuming we know what a Broadway chorine should look like.

A Chorus Line was a 1970s show that actually grew out of confessional monologue workshops and the constant question of what makes people fight for – or go back to — the limited limelight of metronomic Broadway hoofing. With some nifty tunes and snappy steps that remain stuck in the brain, it was one of Broadway’s longest inhabitants and spawned endless road show performances by nubile young bodies and nubile if predictable voices.

Those productions still emphasize the flashing bright lights, the mirror multiplication and the famous gold sequins and top hats of the closing – none of which are present in this production.

It is only being performed Sunday and Monday (tonight) at Cardinal Stritch College’s theater. It was packed opening night with a friendly and raucous crowd, which must have been quietly amazed at how two people (keyboardist Ryan Cappleman and percussionist Michael Lorenz) could fill the auditorium with sound.

Never intended to hit the circuit, this version was surely meant to provoke new thinking about this old road warrior – songs married to the individuality of the performer more than chorus line look, monologues intended to make us newly think about the meanings of “special enough” and “singular sensation.”

Stage director Jill Anna Ponasik has followed the outline of the famous step-kick choreography and brings in some more traditional looking dancers from the sidelines, but the audience is still aghast at how those “older folk” who fill the center can still move, pirouette and emote. Since we are not mesmerized by the showgirl looks and pre-recorded nature of the vocals, there is a new humanity when Beth Mulkerron and Rana Roman lead “What I Did for Love” and some deeper maternal anger than I picked up in early productions when Angela Iannone, Jenny Wanasek and Melissa Kelly Cardamone share “At the Ballet.”

It doesn’t all work – in fact, in some ways it exposes the limitations of the book and the shtick some performers lean on whatever the circumstances. Conversely, some of it is good shtick – David Flores’ chunky mugging while he does a nifty tap-dance, Karl Miller’s smug lip-smacking relish of some great lines (one, incidentally, provided to Bennett by Neil Simon) and Joel Kopischke’s unflagging sense of humor.

It’s somehow a perfect inverted fit when the least expected performer on the stage, Marcee Doherty-Elst, romps and burlesques the “T&A” number. The still nimble Bill Jackson, who actually taught my children at MPS, is used as vocal anchor in many numbers.

The most sardonic role is Sheila, and the part seems to attract talent. Some 35 years ago reviewing a Broadway national tour, I singled out the then unknown Bebe Neuwirth, who was padded to an inch of her life and somehow still found acting space to land the sarcasm and sadness of Sheila. In this production, the laugh lines and physical dexterity fall to Iannone, and she finds even more humor and worldliness.

Having the cast hold scripts provides some clever choreographic moments – and large doubt in the audience that a cast of this caliber needs them. It also backfires because only when they put the scripts down and get inside the people they represent (age be damned) does the full meaning arrive of having older people or non-gamine bodies in the roles.

It really hurts when C. Michael Wright (artistic director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theater) tries to juggle both script and water bottle for the most revealing and emotional soliloquy in the production.

In a way this was a valuable attempt to return A Chorus Line to its roots and its appeal to the chorus baby in all of us – and now these stage veterans must immediately turn around to other roles this season will bring.

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre and TheatreRed collaborated on this production.

A Chorus Line Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

One thought on “Theater: Truly a Singular Sensation”

  1. Phyllis Wax says:

    This review appeared in my email this morning (Tuesday). What was the point of running it when the performances were already over? One day earlier and I would have rushed out to buy a ticket! Please, no more teases for something we can’t see.

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