Broadway bound 

If A Chorus Line has a lesson to teach, it’s that performing \nhas its price. How much is Missoula willing to pay?

“I’ve always wanted to be a star!”

Jessi Trauth stands so erect you could follow the line of her spine into infinity. With the unnerving classical stance of the teenage ballet student, she is dressed in onion-skin layers of leotard, colored spaghetti straps cutting a path over her flared collarbone, snaking down her pronounced shoulder blades. While other 16-year-old girls meet in gaggles at the Carmike 10, dressed in duplicate costumes of Old Navy pastel pink, bellies revealed, Stevensville High School junior Trauth works four, five, six hours a night after school, rehearsing A Chorus Line, a show that is about as demanding as musical theater gets. And she is in heaven. In executing a number she has just learned, her legs bound and spring, her smile concentrated on an imaginary audience. She suffers “acute pain” over most of her body—neck, shoulder and spine complaints warrant regular visits to the chiropractor—but she doesn’t care, doesn’t feel her body calling its needs to her, hears only the need to perform. This ingenue, this Hollywood movie character, this Gene Kelly girl.

“I’m going to head to Broadway when I’m done with high school,” Trauth blurts in a cascade of manic enthusiasm. Her thin face has the taut, shining look of a young child’s, a look that knows no rejection, which she says she has never suffered. “I want Broadway so badly. Betsi said I should just go straight there, that I have what they want right now: I shouldn’t wait.”

Betsi Morrison would know. Eighteen months ago, Morrison was playing a nurse in the company of South Pacific with Robert Goulet (she understudied the role of Nellie), right there on that Great White Way of Trauth’s dreams. After 10 years of building a professional career, Morrison found herself exactly where Trauth hopes she’s headed, but Morrison didn’t want to be there anymore. “It was show up, punch the clock, do your work, go home,” she says. “It was just a job.”

“It was hard for us to get through it and not feel used,” says Morrison’s fiancé, Luke Walrath, also a successful Broadway performer who understudied the role of Mac in 42nd Street. Every day for a year and a half he danced as a “swing”—a versatile dancer who knows every part in a show in order to fill in for absent cast members on any given day.

“When I got to New York, people said I had this great naive quality, that I shouldn’t lose it. Well, I lost it. Right before we left [New York], I overheard someone say ‘Everyone knows Betsi’s the next star to happen,’ and I felt like I was right on the edge, but for all the opportunity New York has and all the wonderful things that come with a such a mass of people in the same place, you lose control. The higher up you get the more of a commodity you become because the money gets so big. You lose sight of what you came here for in the first place.”

Raised in Whitefish, Missoula and Helena as she followed the trajectory of her parents’ law careers, Morrison decided to come home and bring Walrath with her. They found a place in Whitefish, borrowed a Chevy Tahoe and got a dog. Now Walrath works as a realtor’s assistant. Morrison is a bank teller.

Walrath and Morrison share the credit as director/choreographer for MCT’s production of A Chorus Line. The show is intensely rigorous, physically demanding and in its very essence an ode to the quixotic ebb and flow of professionalism. Seventeen dancers win an audience with a director at a Broadway tryout. These aren’t even leads, they’ll just be the chorus. They still have to dance their hearts out, sing their heads off and appeal to an intolerant, impatient director. The show takes place on a bare stage, with the director pacing around them or sitting out in the house, calling on the hopefuls to give their stories and explain their passions.

The musical also highlights the palpable work of theater. The set is limited to a mirrored backdrop, but the lighting, which is being designed by Mike Monsos, must be detailed, complex and viciously precise—the design demands almost 200 light cues in just 90 minutes—making this a show that taxes theatrical design to its limits, even while appearing to be bare bones. It’s the stench of desperation and the long, thankless hours that interested creator and choreographer Michael Bennett, who interviewed his friends and colleagues on the subject of life as a dancer. “This is a show about theater people,” says T.J. Charlson, who plays the role of Zach the director. “And because theater people use their emotions quite a bit, sometimes in extreme, we let slip some things that are normally guarded in everyday society. In this audition they’re selling themselves, putting themselves out there, and that makes the material a little more raw.”

All shows are tough, and all demand determination and tireless work from the extras and the lighting designer, the stage manager and director. In addition, A Chorus Line requires a cast of “triple threats,” strong dancers with great singing voices who can also act, and for that reason this musical seemed an extraordinarily ambitious project when MCT announced it last spring. At the heart of its identity, MCT is a community theater, a playhouse emphasizing civic participation over dramatic excellence. It’s also a business, and the home season is constructed with an eye toward ticket sales. Popular shows—Harvey, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—please subscribers and the box office. A riskier show, such as last year’s Blood Brothers, often earns half-empty houses. People haven’t heard of it and don’t plan on coming. But all the shows strive to be presentable; A Chorus Line, with its concentrated dose of realism and eye-popping dance routines, was intended to be exceptional.

Jim Caron, MCT’s executive director, had planned to co-direct the show with Charlson, but when unexpected back surgery confined Caron to several weeks of bedrest, he thought of Morrison, whom he knew from her girlhood days at MCT, and of Walrath, who appeared in both Blood Brothers and this year’s summer production, with Morrison, of Crazy for You. Perhaps the Equity duo could deliver something unusual, something unexpected. Morrison, who left the University of Montana in 1988 to pursue opera at the University of Nevada-Reno, possessed the show’s “Bible” (the book of Bennett’s original 1975 choreography) and the abiding desire—you might even say obsession—to recreate it.

The Broadway pair agreed to take the job and arranged their schedules so they could be in Missoula at least half the days of each week. At early auditions they learned the first rule of community theater: You work with what you have, which often means goodwill rather than good legs. You work for “good enough.” They quickly realized that their longtime standards did not apply. They almost dismissed one auditioner because of a body type that failed to fit the New York definition of Broadway perfection. That dancer won a place in the show, however, and Morrison says, “All I see now is the talent.” That is not a second chance a dancer in professional theater—even a talented dancer—would be afforded.

Although 70 people tried out initially, Morrison and Walrath, together with musical director Michael McGill, decided to extend auditions and delve more aggressively into Missoula’s small theater community. One part called for an African-American male, but no black dancers had auditioned, so MCT had to import Max Kumangai-McKee, a college student in Spokane, who went through MCT’s programs as a child. Theater majors from UM’s Drama/Dance Department were asked to audition alongside other reliable performers who had not intended to go out for such a difficult show. Malcolm Lowe, a regular MCT presence and a favorite, was asked to read for the part of Zach the director, the only role that requires no dancing. When the directors cast him as a member of the chorus line instead, he worried. “I’m not a dancer,” he says. “But they had so few male dancers. They needed me. I don’t think I’m doing what I do best, but I’m challenging myself, giving it a shot. And I think that’s a large part of what community theater is about—just giving people the opportunity to put themselves out there. But I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more mentally challenging than the finale.”

Upstairs at MCT, on a dark winter’s night that only whispers of the cold to come, actors and dancers gather in the hallway. Some flop into quiet groups of two or three, one reads his book attentively, and another folds her body in half to flatten her chest against her pink leg warmers, limbering up for the rehearsal ahead. As Missoula’s theater world is acutely small, everyone knows everyone. Actors who live here typically shuttle from the MCT stage to any of the several stages on the University campus, and even more typically spend the bulk of their time outside of theater entirely—running a downtown business, waiting tables, parenting. They have shared classes together, auditions, workshops, callbacks. Some grew up attending MCT’s performance camps. For some, like KECI news anchor Heidi Meili, this is a first, a step into theater after her career as a Seattle Seahawks cheerleader. She has been cast as Sheila, the sexpot interested in the casting couch. It won’t take long for her to enter the tight-knit embrace of performers—the casual neck-rubs in the hallway, the borrowing of tights or T-shirts, the lift into town, the late burger after rehearsal. They’ve only been together for a few rehearsals on A Chorus Line, but already cast members are teasing and flirting, showing off together and goofing around.

From within the dance studio come the repetitive calls of hard work and direction, the stop and start of a solo rehearsal as one singer gets a private lesson from Walrath. When the general rehearsal begins, the dancers flood the brightly-lit studio, which still wears its classroom identity around the edges, even though MCT renovated the decaying public school six years ago. Mirrors, floor to ceiling, run the length of the studio, and an upright piano occupies almost a third of the space where rehearsal pianist Linda Stratton sits patiently, waiting for a signal to play. This is the classic picture of rehearsal, everyone poised to pay attention, ready to come together, the slop and spread of bags and clothes pushed to the room’s perimeter, a painting rendered by Edgar Degas, sustained across two centuries.

As the dancers shuck their duffel bags and outer layers and grab final swigs of water before finding their places, Morrison attends to her dog. The black-and-white Australian shepherd cross paces frantically, threading a path among dancers, skittering in close behind her mistress’s white sneakers. She stops abruptly to survey the identical dog in the massive mirrors. Dancers do their best to concentrate on the difficult steps Walrath illustrates as the dog winds her anxious way among their legs, herding instinct activated. If your director brings in a dog, you get used to the dog, and everyone pretends not to notice the obvious distraction. Morrison keeps trying to lure the dog over to a corner, commanding, “Freya, stay!,” but the dog ignores her. Finally, Morrison turns to the company and announces that anyone who wants to bring a dog to rehearsal may do so.

In New York, you wouldn’t bring your dog. In New York, the lazy, happy chatter of longtime comrades would instead be filled with strained, competitive sideways remarks, and the bodies in front of Walrath and Morrison would be thin, highly trained, brightly young. MCT’s company, on the other hand, spans ages from 14 to 50 (though no one looks her age, or his, the athletics of performance aging the high-schoolers and preserving the grown-ups). Walrath, central casting for the hard-working hoofer, and himself a figure from a Gene Kelly backstage fantasy, has a compact athletic build, usually draped with T-shirt and jeans. He stands in front of the mirror, scanning the feet of his dancers, checking their steps, and his youthful face is as sweet and pleasing as a glee club novice. He plans to teach the steps to the technically grueling finale, which closes the show with A Chorus Line’s signature song, “One.”

Liz Jacobsen arrives, her dance bag over her shoulder. Her face, usually high-wattage bright and commanding, is serious. Here, she is a dancer. In her other life she is a pastor’s wife and a mother to three small children, living a parent’s days of minivans and dentist appointments. Rehearsals offer her the chance to connect with facets of herself for which she no longer has much practical use. Ten years ago, Jacobsen was living in New Jersey, taking voice and dance lessons, and putting spare cash in an envelope to pay for the New York theater tickets she and her husband bought on a regular basis. She loved performing, played Morales in a Princeton production of A Chorus Line, and hoped to make song and dance her career. One day, armed with $500 worth of professional headshots, she traveled into the city and auditioned for a touring production of My Fair Lady. The backstage air was intense and still with the nervous, fierce concentration of hundreds of others also trying out. “It was in a big theater,” she says. “And I thought ‘This is really it.’” On her way home, a realization broke over her. “If they offer me this,” she thought, “I don’t know if I would want to leave my brand new husband right now and travel. The greatest thing about getting married was that I didn’t have to say goodbye to him anymore.”

Such a bolt of recognition can shape a life. When her husband Eric interviewed for a position as associate pastor in Missoula, the church arranged for Jacobsen to meet Jim Caron. “They were showing off MCT,” she says. It worked. Jacobsen, who is cast again as Morales, saw that in moving to Missoula she could put her family first and still find an outlet for her creative energy, an outlet that wouldn’t demand exclusive commitment and long days of dedication.

Jessi Trauth’s bolt struck her during the American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive in Seattle. Having danced on and off since age 3, Trauth was wondering in which direction to focus her life. “I got the chance to see how I did, how I fit into the competitive dance scene. Well, I didn’t feel discouraged! I thought, ‘I can handle this!’” With that, Trauth’s horizons began their stretch beyond Missoula toward the mythic land of the Big Break.

On one bleak, sub-freezing afternoon, the company fills a rehearsal studio and Walrath and Morrison pace out the endlessly long “Montage” number for the dancers, breaking it into manageable pieces, little jolts of slide and rhythm which they then gradually assemble into a smooth presentation. Morrison and Walrath wear their experience in their bodies, and when they snap into a formation of two, those bodies reveal an exquisitely polished poise, a smooth, taut, flawless glissando of movement. The effect is electric, the current of profound connection to the dance alive in the room. Everyone watches them, letting their eyes drink in what their bodies have to learn.

The rehearsal goes on for hours, evening breaking over the room. When it nears its end, Walrath asks his dancers if they want to stop or go through the number once again, which will drag them past quitting time. The response is unanimous, and the unflagging cast resumes its place as Stratton at the piano revs up patiently for the umpteenth run-through. Like Energizer bunnies, the cast members are alarmingly pepped up after so many hours of hard dance, incorporating the steps, mastering new routines. Walrath is bathed in sweat, his white T-shirt sticking to his back. Only he and Morrison have a sense of the unfinished business, the extent of the work that lies ahead, the compromises to make. He is still the gentleman, though, and he thanks his enthusiastic company profusely, genuinely, for everyone’s time and efforts.

“These people don’t stop,” he marvels afterward. “We throw massive amounts of stuff at them and they just take it!”

Observing rehearsals from a distance, you might think of a prison work crew, and it’s easy to understand how Walrath and Morrison felt used and used up by the time they relinquished their Broadway stature. Performers during rehearsal are little more than agents of other people’s visions, while the choreographer, director, musical director, stand aloof, shouting instruction to their dancers, servants who will do—who must do—what they’re told.

Not that anyone in the studio seems to mind. For most people here, acting is, at best, a very serious hobby, and the difference between a beloved pastime and an obsessive career is immense. Like many in Missoula, Jacobsen traded youthful ambition and achievement for space, mountains, rivers, children. “The people I know who have struggled with that choice,” says Charlson, “they’ve come to a point in their life to realize priorities. We can do wonderful theater, get the same artistic satisfaction. We’ve made the trade-off, and there’s less pressure.”

But A Chorus Line is a show about pressure, about the longing, insecurity and desperation unique to actors. The cast members need to feel panic and risk; Morrison worries that this cast, in its inexperience and predominant youth, won’t be able to conjure that risk. “The times that productions fall flat is because there’s no risk,” Walrath points out. Although some of the actors understand professional pressure—Erika Anderson, playing Val who sings the notorious “Dance Ten, Looks Three,” worked for three and a half years as a Las Vegas showgirl before returning to hometown Missoula—most here have been lovingly spoon-fed community expectations. MCT performers are unpaid and sign up for shows because it’s fun. In Jacobsen’s case, the flicker of her dancing past renews her vitality with her children. The actors feel no obligation to turn a profit for their employers, no worry about the producers’ emphasis on box office return, no concern for the bad behavior of the big stars whose groping hands and huge demands can rule a production. They are glad to be doing this, yes, but do they hunger for it? Do they ever feel what Jacobsen felt so long ago at that New York audition, that this has to be your life in order for the show to work? In order for your career to work?

Missoula is populated with, even powered by, people who made a deliberate choice to be here. For many, life in Missoula—with its famously laid-back ethic, fistful of rivers, mountainous beauty, easy access to winter and water recreation, and its proliferation of friendly Aussie-cross dogs—is the life worth living. Like the New York cabbie who left his life as a civil engineer back in Soviet Georgia, everyone has sacrificed something to be here, and if that means you act only in the occasional show, teach a night class in photography, make desserts for a restaurant instead of head the whole kitchen as you did back in the big city, then so be it. In return, you get that increasingly rare American pastoral that specializes in community, where you learn that a rich life is composed of your neighbors, your friends, your children’s playmates, the people who show up at your doorstep with dinner when you’ve just had a baby, the people who stop alongside Highway 200 to help with your troubled car, though someone else has already stopped, too.

Walrath and Morrison traded corporate organization and economic success for the passion of a production such as MCT’s A Chorus Line. The giddy energy of this cast and its boundless enthusiasm have helped its directors reconnect with the joys of theater that had been obscured by pressure and routine. This work is happy.

At the first on-stage rehearsal, and still a long ways from opening night, a spell falls over the cast, a transition from playtime to professional responsibility. The performers know it and the director knows it, and now Walrath sees, on the unforgiving lines of the stage, that nobody’s hitting his mark. The chorus line widens and collapses with a dangerous sway that will look hideously amateurish in front of an audience. Walrath’s boyish cheer starts to fray, and he no longer peppers his instructions with “Good!” or “Yes!” He stops the cast repeatedly, exasperated. He takes a few moments to himself and then returns to the stage with awkward hesitation. “I’m really sorry,” he says, “but this isn’t working like this, and, uh, I’m sorry, we’ve decided to make some cuts.”

Walrath, being good—experienced, trained, seasoned—holds in his mind an idea of the show he wants. Now, he’s beginning to see the show he’ll get. He’s rueful in a way a Broadway director would never have to excuse when he eliminates a number. These people before him aren’t here to further their careers, boost their TV chances or earn a lot of money (or any). They’re here because they love what they’re doing, and how can you deprive people who are just enjoying themselves? It’s like boxing up the preschooler’s Lego set because he didn’t build an architecturally realistic city. Walrath is at odds with himself, you can see, because he wants a quality he knows now he’s not going to get, and at the same time he wants to reward his hard-dancing performers with the encouragement they deserve. He can’t have both. So he cuts. He cuts away bits that feel too loose, routines that need three more weeks of rehearsal he doesn’t have. Morrison sweeps across the stage in a chocolate-colored sheepskin coat and stops to kiss her fiancé before greeting the waiting cast with a smile. She still wears a trace of New York glamour-girl, though in conversation she is open and witty, genuinely endearing. Her small face encircled by a bob has a timeless look caught between Gish girl and Leslie Caron (except when she sports two high, tiny pigtails). She drops her bag on a house seat and takes off the coat to reveal rehearsal clothes: jeans and that typical layering of leotard, tank top and cut-off T. She turns her attention to the stage: this tableaux of willing, eager, energetic, persistent, sloppy dancers. She can see the problem, too.

Walrath is tense and no longer smiles. He’s in his own head, making frantic adjustments to keep the show together, while accommodating Morrison’s need to have the precise choreography replicate Bennett’s. How can he get them to do what he wants them to do? How can he make them do it? This is a great deal to ask of these under-performed performers, no matter how dedicated. Morrison feels Bennett belongs in an historical line that extends from Agnes de Mille to Jerome Robbins, then to Bob Fosse and ends with Susan Strohman. “He had a very unique style,” Morrison says. “I’d say it’s funky, jazz and out there.” “Bennett threw all different kinds of styles in, and it’s so fast,” says Jacobsen. “He wanted a progression. This is the hardest choreography I’ve ever done.”

Five days later, just a few days from opening night, the show has undergone that mysterious alchemy of the theater: yesterday a formless, disparate patchwork, today bright and pulsing with the energy and excitement of “putting it together,” as Sondheim wrote. Today, the framework Walrath, Morrison and the dancers have been building finally has costumes, lighting and an orchestra. The work of others now blends with the dancers’ work and suddenly everyone can see that this labor of passion and endurance will yield theatrical results.

Last summer, Morrison and Walrath produced and starred in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change in Whitefish. It was a success, and it was fun, fun in a way theater had ceased to be when they left behind their expensive New York apartment and the heavy salaries that paid for it. “Everyone thought we were crazy to walk away from that. A friend of mine thinks I’ve dropped off the face of the Earth,” says Walrath. He and Morrison hope to establish a serious summer season in Whitefish, importing from New York the experience and talent of their Equity friends. “Who wouldn’t want to come to Montana for a month in the summer?” Morrison asks.

“I left New York really jaded,” Morrison says. The glamorous coat, floor-length and luxurious from a SoHo boutique, came with no buttons, and Morrison laughs at her own folly, buying it anyway when she knew she would have to fend off the practical winds of Montana. But, standing in that wind, the coat can remind her of the woman she was in New York, the woman still stepping out of a taxi at the entrance of a warmly lit, crowded restaurant. “I want to live here, and I want my career, too,” she admits, and maybe one day she’ll manage to balance both. In the meantime, she encourages Jessi Trauth to get to New York if she wants to make dancing her life. “There’s such emphasis on youth right now,” she says. “I would hate for her to miss out on that.”

Trauth is going to New York soon, though just for a few days in February after A Chorus Line closes. She’ll stay with her 21-year-old sister, also a dancer, who left for the city in September and now works the audition circuit. Trauth plans to audition, along with over a thousand others, for the Broadway Theatre Project, an intensive summer camp for young performers run by her idol, Broadway legend Ann Reinking. “My family has been hugely supportive,” Trauth says. “My parents have put the time, the energy, the money into our dreams. I feel really lucky about that because a lot of parents don’t back their kids. They say, ‘Oh, it’s too hard. You’ll never make it,’ but somebody’s going to make it, and it’s going to be me! And I’m going to give it every last bit of me!” During a break in rehearsal she drops to a spot on the floor and races through a dozen stomach crunches, the frenzy of physical work almost consuming her right in front of you. With glowing eyes and an eager voice she announces, “I’m not jaded, and I’m never going to be!”

A Chorus Line debuts at MCT Community Theatre at 200 N. Adams at 8 PM, Thursday, January 22. Tickets are $16/adults and $14/children. The show will run Jan. 22–25 and Jan. 28–Feb. 1 with Wed.–Sat. evening performances at 8 PM, Sun. evening performances at 6:30 PM and Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. Matinee tickets cost $14, and Fri. and Sat. evening shows cost $18. Call 728-PLAY.

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