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Characters make 'A Chorus Line' touchingly human

| Thursday, July 19, 2001


Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett created 'A Chorus Line' to celebrate its often overlooked performers.

Its impact almost guaranteed that audiences would never again view an ensemble of singers and dancers as faceless, nameless performing machines.

As we get to know the nearly two dozen performers auditioning for the eight available chorus spots, we come to care for each of the aspirants as individuals.

Each production of 'A Chorus Line' renews that connection as different performers overlay the roles with their own personalities. Depending on the individual player, some characters will pop more sharply into prominence or sound more poignant, funnier or sillier than they did in other productions.

It reminds us again that the people who entertain us are people first, and as Cassie says, 'They're all special.'

The production that Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera is presenting through Sunday at the Benedum Center is a co-production of Pittsburgh CLO in partnership with six other theaters and producers.

That means it arrives in Pittsburgh with a little more rehearsal time and some performance experience that results in a more confident, polished and relaxed delivery. On opening night, the only problems were faulty microphones and spotty amplification, a common shortfall for visiting productions still making adjustments through the first performance.

'Write about what you know' is an author's axiom. But it might explain why musicals such as 'A Chorus Line,' 'The Producers' or 'Kiss Me Kate' that feature stories wrapped around the theatrical process are often successful and enduring.

In creating 'A Chorus Line,' Bennett gathered a group of dancers who shared their personal and professional stories with him. He then worked with composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Ed Kleban and writer James Kirkwood to create the score and book.

The result is a sparely staged production that focuses on individual performers relating their lives in story, song and dance as they audition for roles in a new musical.

It's an entertaining, often emotional voyage as these young performers reveal their passion for and commitment to an uncertain, short-lived, economically unstable, yet thoroughly rewarding career.

Penn Hills native Mark Bove plays the seldom-seen but demanding choreographer Zach, who insists that those who audition not only display their singing and dancing abilities but bare their souls for a chance to be in his show.

Bove's Zach is harsh and often angry, most especially in his exchanges with his former girlfriend, Cassie, played here by Caitlin Carter. As Cassie, Carter reveals a pleasant vocal ability in her big number 'The Music and the Mirror.'

Zach's compassionate side is given a brief exposure in his exchanges with Luis Villabon as Paul, who reveals his beginnings as a drag performer.

In 'Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,' former Point Park student Nadine Isenegger brings intelligence and spunk to Val, who learns that a chemically enhanced appearance can be a greater asset than great fan kicks.

Robert Tunstall's comic ability and offbeat banter bring delightful prominence to Bobby's tale of escape from Buffalo, N.Y. Kim Shriver's assertive, acerbic but seductive Sheila commands attention. Former CLO Mini Star Tim Federle's Mark provides humor with his tale of his misdirected self-diagnosis of an adolescent ailment.

Baayork Lee, who served as Bennett's assistant choreographer and originated the role of Connie, serves as director and choreographer for this restaged production. The dance numbers appear less elaborate and not as crisply executed as earlier productions, and there's an occasional focus problem that leaves you searching for the speaker or singer.

But the dancers still draw large applause for the singularly sensational and splashy finale with its golden top hats and sequin-splattered satin tail coats.

Finally, a reminder for those attending: 'A Chorus Line' runs two hours and 20 minutes without intermission. Attend to any outstanding urgent business before the curtain rises.

The Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's presentation of 'A Chorus Line' continues through Sunday. Performances: 8 p.m. today; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $11 to $42. Benedum Center, Seventh Street at Penn Avenue, Downtown. Details: (412) 456-6666.

Alice T. Carter can be reached at (412) 320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com .

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