You bet the cast members of “A Chorus Line” — opening Friday at Crown Uptown Theatre — are rivetingly aware of the real-life parallels between the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 musical and their own lives on the stage.
The beloved groundbreaking show points out that their glamorous but demanding careers could be over in a heartbeat through an ill-timed misstep, but performers say it spurs them on even more.
“It’s sort of therapeutic,” said Jacob January, cast as Bobby, a self-centered jokester who uses caustic humor as a defense mechanism against criticism or rejection. “When we get up on that stage, we know we are living the truth of it every day.”
“It feels real. It hits close to home,” said Kayla Peabody, who plays Val, the character who got plastic surgery casting directors would notice her. “Particularly in the song ‘What I Did for Love,’ we realize that the careers we love and have devoted so much time and effort to could be over just like that through a fall. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s not discouraging.”
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The two are part of the enthusiastic 19-member cast that will bring to life the dance-heavy musical by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban.
Inspired by candid backstage conversations from real-life chorus gypsies, the show — set on a bare stage during a routine audition — provides humorous, poignant and sometimes harrowing glimpses into the hearts, minds and souls of young dance hopefuls and their hard-driving choreographer as they tell of events and decisions that made them who they are.
It’s a show that’s been a longtime personal favorite of Crown’s artistic director, Matthew Rumsey, because of its in-your-face truthfulness about why people devote their lives to the arts even though only a tiny percentage ever achieve fame and fortune.
“It’s a show that will blow audiences away because it is a mix of great dance and great drama,” Rumsey said. “I wouldn’t say it’s daunting to put on, but it is really challenging. It will prove what we can do.”
Crown choreographer Gigi Gans Royle is using Michael Bennett’s original choreography for three numbers, from the frenetic “I Hope I Get It” opening to the show-within-a-show practice routine, “One,” and its encore as the famous show-stopping finale. But she is mixing in her own ideas throughout the rest of the show.
“I’m retaining the flavor and vibe of the original but giving us a chance to put our own personal stamp on the show,” said Royle. “It’s very 1970s — fun and energetic. The steps, including Bennett’s originals, are not particularly difficult for a trained dancer, but there are a lot of them. It’s takes a lot of dedication and personal commitment from the dancers to get it all done.”
Playing the key role of Cassie, a stand-out dancer who left Broadway for a solo shot in California but failed and is now trying to return to her roots in the chorus, is Allison Nock.
Another pivotal role is sexy, cynical Sheila, a reliable but aging dancer who feels younger, perkier competitors nipping at her heels. She is played by Timmy Hays, a Minneapolis native making her Crown Uptown debut.
“Sheila is tough. I like to think of her as ‘seasoned’ rather than having been around the block a few times. She can see the end of her career coming and she uses humor to fight the inevitable,” Hays said. “I can identify with her humor.”
But the crucial role, which is loosely based on life experiences of co-writer Dante, is Paul, played by Ryan Naimy, a New York-based actor. Paul is a shy, gay, abused-as-a-child Puerto Rican drop-out who found redemption through dance.
“Paul is so different from me in real life that this is a real challenge,” Naimy said. “I’ve never gotten much of a chance to play dramatic roles because I’m known for being so outgoing.”
The 10-member Crown Uptown pit orchestra will be conducted by Philip Taylor under music direction and supervision of Jesse Warkentin. Set design is by Michael Downs, with lights by Dan Harmon, sound by Josh Gordon and David Muehl, and costumes by Emily Valley.