“A Chorus Line” gets brilliant treatment with MOT and Theatre Red collaboration

The cast of “A Chorus Line” with headshots for the producer

The recent Powerball pot of $700 million spawned a number of stories about what you’d do if you won.

Well, if I ever win the lottery I’m going to build a spectacular golf course and then give a couple million each to Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theatre Red. The money would provide the opportunity for each company to have extended runs of their creative, challenging and unique productions.

Case in point:” A Chorus Line” the enchanting show that revitalized the American musical 42  years ago and that remains fresh and engrossing today.

The only sad part of the collaboration between these two companies is the fact that this wonderful production ran for only two nights. It could – should – have run for two months or, what the hell, two years.

Before we get to the big issue, let’s take a little walk down the road not travelled for so many people who couldn’t see this show. All of you, listen up, because here’s what you missed.

The musical is an unvarnished look at the behind the scenes life of wannabe Broadway dancers who are in audition for a spot in an upcoming production. It’s the story of their confidence and insecurities that go with being a trained performer looking for a job. It’s the embodiment of the axiom “the most difficult job for a dancer is getting a job.”

Seventeen dancers have made the final line to audition for Zach played by Joe Picchetti and his accompanist Larry, played by Ryan Cappleman, who was also the music director in the show.  

Ryan Cappleman puts the dancers through their paces.

It all begins with the song “I Hope I Get It,” a lament not just for show business but for anyone who ever applied for a job they really wanted. It’s a group number and it’s complete with wonderful and imaginative choreography from James Zager.

One by one Zach calls on them to talk, to explain themselves, to make an honest pitch for why they should get the job. Here’s the rundown.

David Flores soft-shoes his way through “I Can Do that”

David Flores gets the first call. Short and round he looks like anything but a dancer. But dance he can, with a smooth soft shoe to the song “I Can Do That,” the line he said over and over as his mother took him along to watch his sister in her dance lessons. Flores is as polished a performer you may ever see and this one is right in his strike zone.

Next came Karl Miller, a dancer, actor, director and choreographer himself. He starts out by performing for Zach, who calls him out. “Do you want to know about all the wonderful and exciting things that have happened to me in my life,” he asks. “Or do you want the truth.” Zach opts for truth.

Melissa Kelly Cardamone, Jenny Wanasek and Angela Iannone are “At the Ballet”

Next comes one of the most beautiful numbers of the entire show, “At The Ballet,” performed here by Angela Iannone, Jenni Wanasek and Melissa Kelly Cardamone.  The contrast between the three is striking, Ms. Iannone the jaded dancer full of temerity, Ms. Wanasek damaged by her appearance and loveless parents and Ms. Cardamone, young and hopeful and shocked by the older dancers.

Doug Jarecki and Karen Estrada were a married couple, each trying for the job. The roars of laughter started when Estrada mentioned that she could dance, but she couldn’t sing. Jarecki instructing her first in “Three Blind Mice “and then in Jingle Bells” – both of which were mangled by Ms. Estrada, was a moment of high humor.

Part of the joy of this show is how each dancer, willing or not, dives back into what made them the person they are today. And one of the most revealing and both funny and touching came from Mark Bucher, the Artistic Director at Boulevard Theatre and a veteran of the Milwaukee community.

“And then there was the time I was making out in the back seat with Sally Ketchum,” he said of his youth. “We were necking and I was feeling her boobs, and feeling her boobs and after about an hour or so she said, ‘Ohhhh, don’t you want to feel anything else?’ And I suddenly thought to myself, ‘No, I don’t.’” Bucher was priceless but there was more to come.

Marcee Doherty-Elst found success with new “Tits and Ass”

The famous song “Dance Ten, Looks Three” fell into the hands (and all the rest of her) of Marcee Doherty Elst, the Producing Director of Theatre Red.

Ms. Elst is a woman of size and she made the most of every bulge and jiggle. She told the story of leaving home, coming to New York to become a Rockette and how she wasn’t able to get a job doing anything until she came to a realization that she had to change the way she looked.

“Dance Ten, Looks Three
And I’m still on unemployment
Dancing for my own enjoyment.
That ain’t it kid, that ain’t it, kid.

“Dance Ten, Looks Three,
Is like to die;
Left the theater and called the doctor
For my appointment to buy….

“Tits and Ass
Bought myself a fancy pair
Tightened up the derriere
Did the nose with it
And all that goes with it.”

The number absolutely brought the house down. The applause was thunder and the show had to pause until everyone settled down. Ms. Doherty-Elst delivered a performance that was part Ethel Merman, part Bette Midler and part Carol Channing. She was magnificent.

The most poignant point of the evening came from C. Michael Wright, the Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, who played Paul.  

His early life was chaotic and he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He was victimized by bullies and ended up in a drag show, without his parents knowing. A tour was planned and, to his shock, Paul saw his parents at the stage door, while he was still dressed in drag. He was frightened of their reaction.

“All they said to me was, please write, make sure you eat and take care of yourself,” he said. “And just before they left, my father turned to the producer and he said: ‘Take care of my son.’ That was the first time he ever called me that. I….ah…ah…”

There was barely a dry eye in the house and you could have heard a pin drop if someone dropped a pin.

Then came the wrap, with the spectacular Rana Roman and the mournful and optimistic classic “What I Did For Love.” Joined by Beth Mulkerron and the remainder of the cast, there were chills and goosebumps everywhere you looked.

The show ended with the cast running up the aisles through a raucous audience that clearly wanted them to turn around, go back on stage, and keep on going.

Theatre Red has brought us “Bachelorettes” and then last year collaborated with Wisconsin Lutheran College to stage a spectacular show about lady pirates, “Bonny Anne Bonny.”

Milwaukee Opera Theatre, guided by the dashing and daring Jill Anna Ponasik has staged a one person opera about a monkey, a brilliant collaboration with Wild Space Dance Company to stage “Songs from the Uproar,” and a version of “The Mikado”that had both Gilbert and Sullivan laughing in their graves.

There are many theater companies in Milwaukee which stand on firmer financial footing and create shows that are glorious.

But nobody can match the out-of-the-box reach of these two, which is why I know what I’m doing with the money when I win the lottery.

Production Credits: Director, Jill Anna Ponasik, Music Director, Ryan Cappleman; Percussionist, Michael “Ding” Lorenz; Stage Manager, Sarah Acker; Production Manager, Jim Padovano” Lighting Designer, AntiShadows LLC; Photography/ Videography, Traveling Lemur Productions; Production Photos, Mark Frohna.

Cast: Joe Picchetti, Ryan Cappleman, Beth Mulkerron, Angela Iannone, Marcee Doherty-Elst, Rana Roman, Diane Lane, Karen Estrada, Jenny Wanasek, Melissa Kelly Cardamone, Carol Greif, David flores, Bill Jackson,Joel Kopischke, C. Michael Wright, James Zager, Mark Bucher, Karl Miller, Doug Jarecki.


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