At month’s end, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theater RED will present a two-performance staging of Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line. The show features a cast including some really iconic names in local theatre: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s C. Michael Wright, Theater RED’s Marcee Doherty-Elst, The Boulevard Theatre’s Mark Bucher, UWM Peck School of the Arts’ Jenny Wanasek. Big names from local theatre companies are joined by some of the most recognizable names in local musical theatre including David Flores, Karl Miller and Karen Estrada. In addition to this, the cast includes Milwaukee theatre icons like Bill Jackson, Angela Iannone and a number of those just establishing themselves like Zachary Dean and Stephanie Staszak and Joe Picchetti.
Really, just listing the names is exhausting. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to put a show like this together. Thankfully I don’t have to imagine. Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik agreed to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
You seem to have come out of nowhere to put up a production of a beloved Broadway musical on a Sunday and a Monday with a cast featuring some of the biggest names in local theatre. How did this show come together?
Yeah…I can see how that might seem strange. This production evolved in two ways.
First: Marcee Doherty-Elst mentioned to me that she had been hatching a dream about a production of A Chorus Line that would feature artists mostly over the age of 40. Something in that idea hooked my imagination, so now there were two people in Milwaukee who wanted to do A Chorus Line with actors mostly over the age of 40. After that, we knew our two organizations would be working together on the project, it simply became a question of how.
Second: Over many conversations, Marcee and I began to generate a cast of artists that felt compelling given this material. We let our minds wander through our personal Rolodexes of artists we admire, and individuals who might have a specific poignancy or sparkle to bring to a certain role. Then we asked them if they’d be interested in working on this. At MOT, we often approach things in this “backwards” way. First locating a cohort of artists interested in working on something, and then finding dates and a venue. So, we sent the cast an array of dates, created a spreadsheet of who could be available when, and then programmed the production to occur on the two days in which everyone could be there. If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is. It’s a ridiculously time intensive way to create an event. But it means you can gather this spectrum of talent in one place for a couple nights at the end of August.
A CHORUS LINE is the type of musical that seems to have a uniquely personal connection for everyone. What's your relationship with the musical been like prior to working on this production?
This is something I am learning! I honestly didn’t realize when we embarked on this project, just how deep its roots are. This material means A LOT to the artists in the cast, and on the creative team. I grew up with A Chorus Line. I remember coming home from high school, dropping my book bag by the piano, and belting out “Nothing” in the living room until my mom came home from work. And yes, I played Cassie my senior year of high school.
With such a large cast working on such an iconic show for only two performances, the experience of working on this thing must feel significantly different from other shows you’ve worked on in the past. How much time to you get to spend working on the show? How many days will have passed from beginning work on the show to the final bows at the end of the evening on Monday, Aug. 28?
Well yes and no. Though it is certainly not the same, this project has a close cousin in the way that we assembled 1776. That too was an iconic American musical, with a gigantic cast. And we performed it once, on book, at Turner Hall. We’re emphasizing different things here, but some of the building blocks are the same.
For 1776, we had exactly 11 hours of rehearsal. And we had exactly one day in the space (load in, cue to cue, performance, and load out all in the same day!). In this case, we have each artist for a total of 14 hours of rehearsal (what a luxury!), we are rehearsing on stage at Cardinal Stritch, and we have two performances. When producing this way, the vast majority of preparation occurs outside of rehearsal. There are a thousand hours of strategizing, and meeting, and strategizing some more for the gift of spending one week working together. When we begin rehearsals on Monday of next week, all of the structure for the production will be in place, and we’ll essentially be sprinting together toward the performance. It’s exciting to watch experienced artists work in this context because it encourages bold choices and the immediate following of first instincts. There is precious little time to edit, so the work takes on an adrenaline infused improvisatory energy.
So, technically speaking, we will have shared one week together working on the show. But, it has been well over a year in the making. After we closed 1776, Paula Suozzi and I exchanged emails in which we realized it had been three years since Paula proposed working on the project, and the single performance. Three years…for one night of theatre! (And it was totally worth it.)
It’s quite a cast. It’s kind of staggering to tally-up all of the shows that everyone in this production has been a part of. It must be really difficult not to feel like nearly everyone onstage is being crowded-out by...everyone ELSE onstage. How collaborative has the process been with everyone involved?
I know, right? It never occurred to me to worry about anyone being crowded out. One of the questions Marcee and I asked ourselves early on was this: “In a piece that is fundamentally about rejection, where hundreds of dancers are whittled down to 17, and then to just 8, is there a way that we can look at the piece with a spirit of inclusion? Can we assemble a cast that looks and feels like a representation of our community, so that it becomes more about coming together than about being split apart.” That’s how we ended up with a cast that includes so many artists from so many backgrounds.
The deepest collaboration has been organizational, between MOT and Theater RED, beyond that, though we have not yet gathered the whole team in person in the same space, conversations have been flowing between cast members and the creative team for months. And useful ideas have come from many sources.
A few years back a Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE came to the Marcus Center. It struck me just how massive the auditorium was and how vacant it all felt. The show is essentially an amped-up musicalized audition story. There’s real passion in that. It got lost in a space the size of the Marcus Center. Here you’re working with a 400-seat space at the Nancy Kendall Theatre. There’s much greater intimacy. How does that intimacy factor-into the way you’re directing the show?
Oh gosh, how I wish I could take a time machine and be in the first audience to see the first preview of A Chorus Line at The Public. I can only imagine what that must have felt like. As originally conceived, A Chorus Line is a pretty raw story, about real people, building lives in the theatre. I don’t think that I would have a whole lot of interest in seeing it in an amphitheater. For us, a 400 seat theatre is a very large space! So I’m worried about that dulling the direct relationship between audience and artist (We often perform just a few feet away from our audiences). I know that we’ll be making choices to make the distance between performer and audience as close as possible, emotionally and otherwise.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theater RED’s production of A Chorus Line makes its way to Cardinal Stritch’s Nancy Kendall Theater Aug. 27 and 28. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.