On E. Broadway 

MCT kicks up A Chorus Line

“Dreams don’t pay the rent,” says Zach, the director/choreographer played by T.J. Charlson in MCT’s production of Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, which opened last Thursday. He isn’t exactly lamenting. He’s just stating a fact. In his years of winnowing fleets of hopeful dancers down to his chosen few, he’s listened to lots of dreams; he’s dashed plenty; he’s weathered his own ups and downs with Broadway’s tough honesty. Played largely as an omnipresent voice running his casting call as if he were seated in the audience alongside us, Zach lets us see each of the dancers as he sees them: Not as a head-shot, not as a résumé, but as an individual with a story. As a person who, money and long shots be damned, is gunning for her dream.

You can’t help but like what you see—because even if your passion is not song or dance, you know what it’s like to want something. You know what it’s like to lose. You know what it’s like to stick to your guns, and you know how that scream rises in your throat when someone finally says, OK, I’ll give you a chance. So when Zach makes his initial cuts, and the 17 remaining dancers toe the white stage line to begin the auditions that will narrow them down to eight, you are endeared to their eager gleams and tense shoulders. You are rooting for them because you get it: Dreams may not pay the rent, but they get us out of bed every morning.

In a town Missoula’s size, this empathy adds a layer of satisfaction to MCT’s A Chorus Line. As you watch these dancers, you get the sense that you’re witnessing real dreams being tested. Not because the acting is transparent; it is solid. In fact, the desire to succeed is so palpable among these characters that when you recognize a cast member—oh, there’s KECI’s Heidi Meili; oh, there’s Jessica Trauth, profiled in the Indy’s cover story last week—you start to look at them the way Zach looks at his hopefuls. Not as a pretty performer, but as a distinct story. As a person who, amidst the demands of parenting or school or work, has carved out this time to risk the spotlight. What you’re seeing on MCT’s stage isn’t about money or stardom. It’s about going for it, against the odds.

Directors/choreographers Betsi Morrison and Luke Walrath must have been fueled by a similar spirit when they decided to take on this Broadway legend in Missoula. A Chorus Line first opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre on April 15, 1975, and remained on the New York stage over the course of 15 years and 6,137 performances. Morrison and Walrath, both Broadway performers themselves, bring to this production a keen sense of Broadway’s pressures as well as the professional skill to scale this musical down to a size that succeeds on a smaller stage.

With set designer and executive producer Jim Caron, they’ve recreated the original staging as it was set in New York—a bare stage with a mirrored backdrop. Costumer designer Linda Muth does an effectively simple job with the dancers’ garb as well. From blue jeans and T-shirts to leotards and bandanas, their dress fosters a genuine, unglamorous, Bad News Bears quality that underscores the individuality of the dancers. Each body in that line, each longing face, stands out from the one next to it.

Kristine (Jessica Trauth) is lit up like a bulb on stage, so tightly wound she looks like she’s going to come out of her skin. Judy (Nora Gustuson) shines in a more bashful light, nervously twisting her long legs as she flashes a lovely smile, while Val (Erika Anderson) champions her own chest with pride. Bobby (Andrew Rossiter), the affluent kid, gets laughs for his breezy self-assured humor, and further down the line quiet Paul (Tim Luoma) sends a hush over the audience with his disarming monologue.

As this cast juggles singing, acting and dancing, they prove to have remarkable depth. In the duet “Sing!,” Trauth and Lucas Graf (as Kristine’s husband, Al) are particularly impressive, playing off each other with contagious energy. Richie (Max Kumangai-McGee) makes you want to try a flip, too, as he infuses the company’s “Go To It” montage with heel-stomping groove. Maggie (JessAnn Smith) and Bebe (Brenna Wagner) supply consistently resonant vocals, and Diana (Liz Palmer Jacobsen) generates convincing emotion in her solo “Nothing.”

Even in moments where a voice might not be full enough, or a dance move not as technically sound as it would be, say, on Broadway, Morrison and Walrath have done a deft job of buffering those shortcomings. With backup singers and lighting designer Mike Monsos’ careful lighting, the production stays textured and full. Conductor/music director Michael McGill’s orchestra gets you toe-tapping in your seat. In a musical about Broadway, you are not distracted by the certainty that Missoula is no Broadway. For two hours, you are entertained by the momentum and range this cast sustains.

In the final scene, as Zach reads off his chosen dancers’ names, Judy (Gustuson) silently clasps her hands and raises them over her head in understated triumph. For a second, you almost want to feel more tension in that moment. More oomph. But then you remember that as big as these dancers’ dreams are, this is, after all, just the chorus line. They’ve still got a ways to go before seeing their names in lights, but you applaud them for this first brave success.
A Chorus Line runs Jan. 28–Feb. 1 at MCT Community Theatre at 200 N. Adams, with Weds.–Sat. evening performances at 8 PM, Sun. evening performances at 6:30 PM, and Sat. and Sun. matinees at 2 PM. Tickets cost $16/adults and $14/children. Matinee tickets cost $14, and Fri. and Sat. evening shows cost $18. Call 728-PLAY.

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