Area Stage conservatory program's 'A Chorus Line' is sensational

CORAL GABLES -- There are perhaps no words in "A Chorus Line" that resonate so strongly with an audience today-- roughly four decades after the Pulitzer-Prize and Tony Award- winning musical's creation -- than "I Hope I Get It."

Whether you're unemployed, hoping to get a promotion, win an award, a role or a contest--in short, whether you need or want something -- we've all been there. We can almost see ourselves clenching our fists or shutting our eyes tightly in anticipation, beads of sweat forming on our forehead while hoping that want or need becomes ours.

If it's done correctly, we see ourselves through the desperate, hopeful characters of "A Chorus Line," at one point the longest running musical ever on Broadway.

I'm happy to report that a supremely talented cast of conservatory program students at Coral Gables' Area Stage Company's intimate playing space are performing in a superb production featuring a see-saw of authentic emotions through March 27. These students are, for the most part, young, with some of them teenagers. They're to be commended for their vivid, convincing, nuanced portrayals.

With a seamless transition from one emotion to another and a familiarity that makes us forget that the people on stage are actors, they convince us they're living their characters' lives.

Like in all good theater, these likeable characters want and need something desperately and a tough, demanding obstacle, in the person of fictional director Zach, stands in their way.

The stakes are particulary high: In the Broadway market of the 1970s, the Great White Way was almost moribund, with jobs hard to get. We know that feeling. So the dogged determination of these characters makes us pull for them that much more.

The characters are based on real-life dancers who participated during the 70s in a taped recording sesssion about themselves with, among others, late director/choreographer/dancer Michael Bennett.

Under John Rodaz' detailed, sensitive direction, the tension in the air is palpable as these characters do everything they feel they possibly can to ensure they get it.

"It" is the often-thankless, not highly visible or prestigious, yet crucial role of dancing in a Broadway musical's chorus (such dancers have been called "gypsies," since they move from show to show).

Entrance applause? Chorus dancers receive none of that, as they blend with other dancers like identical skyscrapers dotting a downtown's landscape. They don't have lines, the movement requires much stamina (whoever said dancing is for sissies needs to witness a rehearsal session similar to that in "A Chorus Line"). The pay's meager and rehearsals can last more than a month for several hours each day.

So you can't help but admire these valiant souls who go through the rigors because dancing is their love. That love is touchingly described by cast members in the song "What I Did For Love." In this and other songs, the performers showcase robust, rangy, expressive singing voices.

As anyone who's seen "A Chorus Line" knows, Zach's unconventional audition process includes not only demonstrating dance steps but describing your background and why you wanted to dance in a chorus.

One by one, Zach calls them forth to describe their disappointments, their hopes, their dreams and their fears.

One of the questions Zach asks after a dancer becomes injured and is taken to the hospital, likely never to dance again, is how they'd react if suddenly they could no longer dance.

In a heartfelt rendition of "What I Did for Love" that evokes an aura of a sad, fleeting moment and a hint of unapologetic conviction, these "gypsies" sing tenderly yet confidently about their love -- dancing.

That love is also vividly demonstrated by Hannah Schreer as Cassie, a veteran "gypsy" who's experienced success as a soloist and lived with Zach for a period of time. He feels she's too good for the chorus, but in the song "The Music and the Mirror," she dances as though she's lost in a world away from worries and cares.

The allure of dance is also deftly conveyed in the song "At The Ballet," which calls to mind the musical "Billy Elliot." In that show, Billy, a motherless lad living in northern England, turns to ballet to express himself in a way that his working class, macho father considers unfit for real men. But, like in "Billy Elliot," "A Chorus Line" proves dancing isn't for the fragile.

In "A Chorus Line," Sheila (a sarcastic, sassy Clara Cowley), recounts how ballet provided a respite from her unhappy family life. Ditto for Bebe (an insecure Isabel Van Natta) and Maggie (a sweet Isabella Pena).

"A Chorus Line" features characters who are distinct invididuals at first, from the supportive husband to the shy gay man who pours out his soul in a monologue about his experience growing up gay and performing. The latter is Paul, powerfully played by J. Romero as a reserved, soft-spoken person who ends the monologue on a highly emotional note. The character is overcome by tears at the end, and Romero makes this emotion seem vividly authentic.

In contrast to Paul's emotionally-fragile speech and sensitive personality, there's the formidable Val (Emily Howard, who makes the character sassy, sexy and unabashedly risque). Howard lends her powerful belt to the song "Ten; Looks: Three (Tits and Ass)," which expresses that talent isn't everything in show business.

Another cast standout is Daniel Capote as Zach. The actor convincingly and seemingly effortlessly possesses a commanding, no-nonsense, impatient demeanor. Without missing a beat, he forcefully calls out the dance steps at a rapid pace. And Capote's subtle but telling gestures that express Zach's exasperation when things go wrong help bring the character fully to life.

But while Capote's Zach can suggest a hard-edged football coach, the actor shows us his softer, more caring side. That's particiularly evident after Paul injures himself and when Zach explains to the dancers that they're all talented but, unfortunately, he can't accept all of them.

Maria Banda-Rodaz' costumes help define each character, bringing individuality to them. By contrast, at the end, they're all "One," a singular homogeneous group of performers dancing in place (the cast nails Leonardo Alvarez' varied, creative choreography). Banda-Rodaz has created the signature, shimmering gold costumes for the end, and they look gorgeous. They also lend a sense of dignity to these people who dance as part of a chorus, thus heightening the emotion of a central character or adding verve to a song.

Giancarlo Rodaz' mood-enhancing lighting lends atmosphere to the proceedings, and the uncredited "set design" is also appropriate. Actually, there is no set; the action takes place on a bare stage with mirrors and the very adept members of the orchestra are seated above.

Perhaps the position of the orchestra members is telling: They, like the "gypsies," are an integral, if not always visible part of a production and deserve to be seen in full view.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "A Chorus Line"

WHEN: Through March 27. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well as March 25 and 26. Matinees start at 5 p.m. Sunday and March 27.

WHERE: 1560 S. Dixie Highway, Coral Gables

HOW MUCH: $10, $15, $20 and $25. Call (305) 666-2078.