For dancers, actors and theatrical performers, one play seems to be revered. It is the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Chorus Line, the original holder of the record for longest-running play on Broadway.
As Theater Works in Peoria prepares to perform this show on its stage, the director, cast and crew are dedicated to doing justice to this ground-breaking show. For those not familiar, audience members witness an audition of young dancers who desperately wish to secure a role in a play called A Chorus Line. During the audition, each of the characters is asked a series of questions by the director, and the stories that emerge about their lives are surprising, sometimes disturbing, and deeply personal.
The fascinating part about this show is that none of the characters are contrived; they’re all based on real people; namely young, starry-eyed dancers trying to make it on Broadway in the 1970s. Feeling a mutual bond, but still basically strangers, the group gathered for a number of taped sessions where they talked about their lives, hopes and reasons for wanting to perform. Michael Bennett, award-winning choreographer and director, then turned those hours of taped sessions into the basis for this play. Some of the dancers who participated in the taped sessions performed in the original production of A Chorus Line—some even played themselves.
Mollie Lajoi, choreographer and director of this production, has a long-standing love affair with the play. She says it was a childhood friend and fellow “theater geek” who introduced her to A Chorus Line when she was 7 or 8 years old. While being driven to and from drama classes together, her friend would sing songs from the show, and Lajoi immediately fell in love with them.
Lajoi has acted in the play twice for different companies, and she says it feels like it’s a dream come true to be directing it.
“This amazing show is so close to my heart,” she says. “When Theater Works contacted me, I felt nervous and excited to take on the role. I want to be able to tell the story as well as possible, because it’s an important story, and because these characters are based on real people and you have to be more sensitive to that.”
Lajoi’s direction to her cast, in regard to getting into character is simple: get to know the person you’re playing.
“I’m telling them to do their research. They can’t be acting like these people, they need to be them.”
Actor and choreographer Kat Bailes is honored to play one of the show’s most pivotal characters, Cassie—a veteran dancer who had some success on Broadway, moved away in hopes of becoming a star, and then sadly returned to New York when her dreams weren’t realized, finally ending up at auditions for A Chorus Line.
“At this point, Cassie has realized that she doesn’t need to be a star, she just needs to dance,” Bailes says. “I certainly have gone through that process where I don’t need to be the lead role, I just need to be dancing. I feel like I know her because, if you’re an actor or dancer, you know what this life is like—it’s just a steady drumbeat of rejection. So you have to love it so deeply, like myself and Cassie, that you just want to keep doing it.”
Trey DeGroodt, who plays Paul, a young man striving to discover and accept his identity, admits that he didn’t know much about A Chorus Line until he was cast in it a few years ago.
“This is my second time playing Paul, but when I first got the part, I didn’t know much about him except that he had a really long monologue,” DeGroodt says with a laugh. “Then I actually read about the show and the guy my character is based off of, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ then I really got into that character. From then on, I couldn’t stop looking things up. Paul is based on one main guy, combined with a few different people’s backstories. It’s just so fascinating.”
It’s obvious that everyone involved with Theater Works’ production of the show have developed a profound respect for it, and an even greater appreciation for the continual struggle that is the life of a dancer. Michael Schwenke, who plays Mike in the show, hopes audiences will walk away with the same appreciation.
“I love this show because it really opens people’s eyes who have never dealt with theater people before,” Schwenke says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a reason why they’re like this,’ or, ‘Something must’ve happened in their childhood that really made them realize that performing is for them.’ It’s giving a different perspective. It would be beautiful if the audiences were able to just have a deeper appreciation than they had coming in.”
A Chorus Line, Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 10580 N. 83rd Drive, Peoria, 623.815.7930, theaterworks.org, various times Friday, February 16, to Sunday, March 4, $36, student and senior discounts available.