BEREA, Ohio – Baldwin Wallace University’s A Chorus Line – Step by glorious step: Tony winner Donna McKechnie brings the moves and memories of “A Chorus Line” to BW
“Have you ever begged for anything?” Donna McKechnie asks.
McKechnie, who won a Tony Award for her role as Cassie in “A Chorus Line” in 1976, poses the question in a rehearsal studio in Berea on a Saturday morning in late September.
“Sure,” answers Julia Hines, in a way that says she’s not so sure at all. Hines is a 20-year-old junior in the Music Theater Program at Baldwin Wallace University with a round face and girl-next-door sweetness. She’s playing Cassie, an out-of-work dancer desperate for a job, in the BW production of “A Chorus Line.” (The show runs though Sunday, Nov. 23.)
“Have you?” McKechnie presses, with sincere curiosity.
“Yeah,” says Hines. “I mean not in this kind of a situation, absolutely not.”
N A Chorus Line
Where: John Patrick Theater,
Baldwin Wallace’s Kleist Center for Art and Drama,
95 E. Bagley Road, Berea.
bw.edu/tickets or call 440-826-2240.
A Baldwin Wallace University production of the musical conceived by Michael Bennett. Music by Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics by Edward Kleban; book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante. Directed by Victoria Bussert and choreographed by Gregory Daniels, restaging the original choreography by Bennett.
This kind of a situation is “life and death,” as McKechnie puts it. If Cassie doesn’t work, Cassie doesn’t eat. More to the point, if she can’t dance, the thing she was born to do, she might as well be dead. After all, “a dancer dances,” as a line from her famous solo goes.
In the scene at hand, Cassie, a former headliner, has shown up to audition for a spot as a member of the chorus in a new show directed by her old love Zach, the man she dumped to pursue stardom in Hollywood.
After landing less-than-plum parts out West – “a go-go dancer in a TV movie of the week” and “a dancing Band-Aid,” among them – she’s back in New York, pleading with her ex to throw her a lifeline by putting her on his line. He tells her she’s too good to blend into the ensemble; she’s not leaving without a fight.
As the tension builds, so does her desperation, culminating in the song “The Music and the Mirror” and one of the most iconic pieces of choreography in Broadway history, right up there with Bob Fosse‘s Manson Trio in “Pippin” and Jerome Robbins‘ “Cool” in “West Side Story.”
Hines, a strong dancer with ballet training, can make it through the exquisite but punishing six-minute sequence without collapsing. But she’s playing the scene with her classmate, the coincidentally named Zach Adkins, too casually. Their exchange is coming off too clean and polite.
“And we don’t want that, right? ” McKechnie says.
You aren’t having a pleasant conversation, McKechnie tells her. “You are begging for something you want more than anything, and someone is closing a door in your face saying, ‘No! You can’t have it.’ ”
At 72, McKechnie is an emissary from the real world of slammed doors; she’s felt the heady elation of fame and the despair of being shouldered aside. The actress and her long, elegantly muscled leg hit the cover of Newsweek in December 1975 under the Big Bird yellow headline “Broadway’s New Kick.”
Four years later, she was unemployed, her career nearly ended by a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. (A smart nutritionist who put her on a raw-food diet and vitamin supplements saved the day.)
Throughout “Cassie class,” a more focused version of the traditional BW master class where industry heavyweights visit campus to work with undergrads, McKechnie speaks in a soft, unhurried, cultured tone, the sort of voice you remember your favorite elementary school teacher having, whether she actually spoke that way or not.
McKechnie has worked with everybody – she’s sung for Stephen Sondheim, acted for Hal Prince and hoofed for Bob Fosse. She can still hit a high C, her barometer for continuing to perform. Her one-woman show opened in London last year, and she’s starting to tour a production called “4 Girls 4” with Broadway babes Andrea McArdle, Maureen McGovern and Faith Prince.
And now, in addition to schooling Hines on all things Cassie she’s also working with Genna-Paige Kanago, a platinum-blond senior last seen as the meanest of the mean girls in “Carrie” at the Beck Center for the Arts, who will play Cassie on alternating days.
Program head Victoria Bussert, who directed McKechnie as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” at Great Lakes Theater in 2001, routinely produces BW shows with two full casts – in “A Chorus Line,” that’s 19 in each troupe, for a total of 38. She can do it, she says, because of the depth of talent in her program. Nobody gets a role they don’t deserve.
After lunch, McKechnie will watch both casts tackle the high-energy opening number (“God I hope I get it / I hope I get it! / How many people does he need?”)
“…McKechnie faces a wall of mirrors to give the girls notes; both are out of breath.
“As you reach back,” McKechnie tells her Cassies, demonstrating, “keep your chest in an arch, so you’re not standing upright, so you’re at an angle. . . . Michael was all about angles.”
She’s speaking of the late Michael Bennett, the creator of “A Chorus Line,” who died of AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987 at the age of 44.
“. . . Take more time rolling your shoulder,” she says, rolling hers. “Make it like it’s all unfolding underwater, in slow motion . . .”
She’s spreading the gospel according to Bennett.
“To me,” says Bussert, eyes on McKechnie, “it’s like he’s still alive.”
McKechnie moves with a lightness and ease that belie her years, arty chic in slim black cigarette pants, a sheer black top with a white leaf pattern, and red open-toed mules, her coral nail polish flashing when she shows Hines and Kanago a step or two alongside Gregory Daniels, head of BW’s dance program.
Bennett’s choreography, which Daniels is re-creating from toe to pinkie in the BW production, is a bear for young dancers.
“It’s very complex, precise and choreographed with movements of the time period,” explains Daniels, “which makes it very difficult for the up-and-coming generation of Broadway performers to grasp. In its day, it was still difficult, but the vocabulary was familiar to the dancers.”
That shared vocabulary was a classic, jazz-based style, something that isn’t taught in studios these days.
“Students are brought up on a contemporary style that’s more lyrical,” Daniels says. “So doing steps like Fosse isolations or Jack Cole lunges feels awkward on young bodies.”
Young dancers, he adds, are not used to being precise. That’s because many of today’s choreographers encourage performers to “feel” dance combinations rather than counting them out, the famous “five, six, seven, eight . . .” shouted out by Zach at the opening of “A Chorus Line.”
“Michael counted everything,” he says. “Counting helps to keep the combinations clean,” a must for “One,” the finale of the show in which dancers form a gold, glittering chorus line and execute 17 consecutive kicks in unison. (“One . . . singular sensation, every little step she takes . . .”)
“Give me somebody to dance with / Give me a place to fit in / Help me return to the world of the living / By showing me how to begin / Play me the music / Give me the chance to come though /All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror / And the chance to dance for you.”
SOURCE: Best of cleveland.com READ MORE