by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hey're college students, teachers and struggling actors. They're theater gypsies who live out of suitcases between and during shows. They migrate to Coeur d'Alene every summer, subsisting in dorms and spare bedrooms just for a chance to shine for a few moments onstage. For the 19 actors in A Chorus Line at Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre (through June 24), the roles reflect the lifestyle to an unusual degree. (Two of the fictional characters are married; in real life, another, different pair of these dancers are engaged.) You just know that the opening number, "I Hope I Get It," crystallizes the emotions these kids had during the auditions for this very show.
A Chorus Line feels dated at times, and the recitations of birth dates that Mr. Bossy Director demands during tryouts for these aspiring dancers only reinforces that feeling. These fictional dancers were all born in the 1940s and '50s; if they were alive today, they'd be in late middle age, well past their dancing prime. That is, if they were alive at all -- Chorus Line's pre-AIDS vintage only reinforces its bittersweet mood. For example, Michael Bennett (1943-87) -- who conceived, choreographed and directed the 1975 premiere -- appears in the current Entertainment Weekly as one of the much-lamented artists who have died of AIDS in the past quarter-century.
Bennett was a pioneer, and a lot of the inclusiveness (of ethnic minorities and gays) and soul-rending honesty (unhappy childhoods and self-loathing) that has bloated so many Lifetime movies is traceable to shows like A Chorus Line. Which is not a knock on this show: Bennett's emotional honesty, willingness to take on taboos and sheer creativity were truly innovative.
Yet when the characters' profanity flares up, or during the "say-hey, I'm gay, let's talk about some T 'n' A" sequences, there was a palpable stiffness among the opening-night crowd in CdA. These kids weren't going to step over the line and do anything obscene, were they?
They weren't, even though Marvin Hamlisch's lyrics sometimes rely on shock value and the '70s fetish for really relating to the real value of real relationships. There are moments when we're afraid we're going to be subjected to 17 mini-biographies in a row, but Bennett et al. found ways to vary the proceedings.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & verall, A Chorus Line is most renowned for its choreography; the only tunes we're humming out the door are the dancers' lyric of self-sacrifice, "What I Did for Love," and the jaunty final anthem, "One." Michael Wasileski's production nonetheless portrays the insecurities and frustrations and dreams of anybody who's really wanted a job. The CdA season opener is a show filled with highlights that are, at times, deeply moving.
Matt Flanders provides the intimidation factor as Zach, that bossy director. You know we're in the disco era when Judith McGiveney has him dressed in bellbottoms, a tight sweater and flapping shirt collars that have been cleared for take off.
For "At the Ballet," a trio of actor/dancers -- Kelly Kunkel, Cara Cooley and Jessica Ann Low -- embody their own vision of what an ideal dance world (or any ideal world) might resemble. Their song and their aspirations merge so well that we start asking Yeats' question: How can we tell the dancer from the dance?
As Val, Karyn McNay provides a solo dance of a somewhat, ahem, earthier nature. In "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," McNay steps up to the challenge of announcing how proud she is of her new tits and ass. McNay fairly glides across the stage, flaunting her boobs and wiggling her butt in a comic/sad display of just how far some people will go to refashion themselves for the sake of fulfilling some guy's idle fantasy. During McNay's gutsy performance, we're thinking naked bodies, but what we're witnessing is naked desire.
Another kind of self-loathing lurks inside Paul San Marco, the dancer who wants to escape a dark past and start over with a new name and a new openness about his sexual orientation. What's remarkable is that in the role, Ross Cornell simply stands and delivers: Almost motionless during a long dramatic monologue, he makes us feel all of his character's disappointments and yearnings.
Charissa Bertels leads the company in a stirring rendition of "What I Did for Love." But the show's biggest highlight arrives when Megan Bayha shreds the dance floor in "The Music and the Mirror." As Cassie, the director's ex-girlfriend, Bayha is saddled (along with Flanders) with some stretches of bad '70s relationship dialogue. But "The Music and the Mirror" presents this show's best union of character, choreography, music and singing. Bayha rolls her shoulders, pirouettes and hugs herself in Wasileski's dynamic, flowing dance designs; Daniel Cox (part of Kasey R.T. Graham's effective 13-piece orchestra) adds a tattoo on the drums; Bayha squares her arms over her head, kicks high and holds both hands to her face. The plot has put the pressure on her -- this is the moment she's supposed to demonstrate how Cassie still is a queen among dancers, too good for a mere chorus line -- and Bayha jettisons the lyrics at one point just to scream with emotion.
With accents by Michael McGiveney's horizontal slats of light and Larry Jess' trumpet shouting from the pit, with her flowing cutaway skirt and with her twirls and hip thrusts and va-voom sexy glides, Bayha becomes a scarlet vision of desire. (I guess I was sort of taken by this number. But then, so was everyone else on opening night; the auditorium was quiet, watching.)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are flaws in CdA's Chorus Line, of course. Some singers seem over-miked at times or else lapse into poor diction; there's some straining for laughs and settling for stereotypes. But the finale provides a glittering gold and white dream of dancers strutting their stuff, transcendent at the pinnacle of their dream. They fade out soon enough -- and the routine was already old-fashioned, even when they conceived it -- but still, it's a fleeting vision of hope. They won't forget, can't regret what they did for love.
We'd all like to be stars, but Wasileski's A Chorus Line has the smarts to show us all the sweat and disappointment that precedes our brief moments in the spotlight.