Staging a classic with fresh eyes

Friday July 6, 2012

The last notes of "What I Did For Love" resonated in the air and the cast of "A Chorus Line" hustled out of the rehearsal space to lunch.

Director Eric Hill has a unique vantage point for Berkshire Theatre Group's production of the famed musical being staged at the Colonial Theatre.

"I'm just fresh eyes," said Hill during a rehearsal break at Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge campus. "I represent the audience in so many important ways. It is my job to sit there and be blithely unaware of any record or history of the play as it was originally done."

Given the show's provenance that could seem an impossible task. But Hill, who has made his career in the theater, has never seen the show. "A Chorus Line" earned a Pulitzer Prize, nine Tony Awards and five Drama Critics Awards. It ran 6,137 Broadway performances from 1975-1990 and 759 shows during its 2006 Broadway revival. There have been international and national tours (the most recent of which wrapped last August) and a movie.

So, when "A Chorus Line" had the first of its five preview performances Monday at the Colonial Theatre, where it officially opens Saturday evening, Hill saw it for the first time.

(Discounting all the rehearsals he has witnessed.)

Counterbalancing Hill's virgin eyes are that of choreographer Gerry McIntyre and musical director Steven Freeman. While this is the first time either has worked on the show, both said they are veryfamiliar with it as spectators.

McIntyre, whose mother took him to see the show as a child, said he decided then and there the performing arts would be his life's work.

"The opening number is just perfect," said McIntyre referring to "I Hope I Get It." "You know exactly where you are. It is exciting and thrilling. And then the story just unfolds."

Hill has elected to stage the play in 1975, the year it opened off-Broadway. Three numbers are Michael Bennet's choreography,

including the iconic "One." McIntyre choreographed the rest the show using his own choreography and occasionally pieces of Bennett's material.

"A Chorus Line" focuses on the struggle of being a "gypsy," a Broadway chorus dancer, and each of the 19-member cast relates their personal story to the audience. The universal concepts of race, sexuality, gender, body image, and childhood struggles are among the challenges that emerge.

Speaking to the show's immense popularity, Hill said "A Chorus Line's" staying power could be attributed to its dramatization of the common obstacles and problems people work to overcome.

"I think it is the accumulation of (all the stories) that has the working power of what works for the audience," said Hill. "Because in that way (the performers) become what the audience is in front of the audience and the audience identifies that."

All three agreed that "A Chorus Line" changed musical theater and likely introduced the concept of "the triple threat"; that is, a performer who can act, dance, and sing equally well -- a must for performers in this show given there is no differentiation between dancing ensemble and "stars," a once-common divided in musical theater.

"I don't think you can ever talk about the ‘70s and where that divide started to happen without discussing ‘A Chorus Line,' " said Freeman.

"It is a piece that just changed the way music sounds and the way it was integrated the music and the dance together."

Hill and McIntyre worked together on last summer's BTG production of "Tommy" at the Colonial. Hill said that production taught him the former vaudeville house is constructed in a way that benefits the audience.

"The audience line of sight and focus is very much where it should be," he said. "The way that the staged audience configuration works out the audience feels they are right in there."

On a recent Saturday, the artistic team for "A Chorus Line" was focused on continuing their work.

"We have to fulfill our own emotional obligations to the story, which is what all of us did for love," Hill said, referring to the lyrics in what has becoime "A Chorus Line's" signature song, "What i Did For Love," "(and) then communicate that to the audience."

Carrie Saldo can be reached at

What: "A Chorus Line." Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Conceived by Michael Bennett. Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante

Who: Berkshire Theatre Group

When: Tonight through July 21; press opening -- Saturday 8 p.m.

Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield

Tickets: $60-$40; tonight's preview -- $37

How: (413) 997-4444; www.Berkshire Theatre; at the box office


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