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'Chorus Line' Catapults Young Dancer's Career

May 31, 1986|EILEEN SONDAK

ESCONDIDO — "A Chorus Line" revolutionized the musical comedy by turning the spotlight away from the stars and onto the nameless, faceless dancers of the chorus. Its message is simply that everybody is special.

When Starlight mounted the first home-grown version of this musical masterpiece in San Diego last summer, a couple of unknown local chorus kids showed everyone how special they were, catapulting to star status in the production.

Among them was a pixie-sized dancer named Michelle Marie Schumacher. Director Trish Garland spotted Schumacher among the hoards of hopefuls at the cattle call and tagged her for the controversial role of Val (the sexy character who sings out the secret of her success in a show-stopping song and dance number).

"That was my first big break," Schumacher said recently. "Until that time, I had done a lot of chorus work, but nobody ever noticed me. I spent three years in Starlight's chorus line, and I got one line in 'West Side Story' and a few lines in 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.' But nobody really knew my name."

The spunky teen-ager didn't even have an Actors Equity card at the time, "but Trish must have seen something in me, and she gave me the part."

Now Schumacher is making her debut with the Lawrence Welk Village Theater, after repeating the role of Val in a San Bernardino production. She is appearing as Louise in "Carousel," which runs through June 22.

As the young performer noted, "I'm still not a star, but I've come a long way. And it all began with Val in Starlight's 'Chorus Line.' " She said the role was her "dream to play ever since I saw the show at the Fox Theater."

To Schumacher's surprise, she was contacted by the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera Company for the "Chorus Line" job because of her rave reviews in the San Diego production.

"I couldn't believe it. . . . They had already cast the rest of the show, but they couldn't find the right Val," she said.

Now, only eight months after being "discovered" in Starlight, Schumacher is "almost making a living" in show business. In the Welk Theater's production of "Carousel," she's right back in the chorus (albeit an Equity one)--except for a brief spell in the limelight as Billy Bigelow's daughter. Hers isn't quite a Cinderella story, but Schumacher has made an impressive leap in this highly competitive business.

"It's a lot more difficult competing with Equity people," she said. "There are a lot of people (auditioning) and a lot less jobs. But until I did 'Chorus Line,' nobody had ever seen me. There was no recognition--even in San Diego--and I had no reviews to tack onto my resume."

The ex-student of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts still resides in San Diego, although it means making frequent trips to Los Angeles for auditions, and she still takes classes to polish her skills.

She said Jack Tygett, a veteran musical theater man in San Diego, and one of Schumacher's mentors, told her: "You have to be a triple threat. You can't just be a dancer."

"I auditioned for 'Music Man' at Welk a few years ago, and I couldn't sing very well then, so I didn't get the part," she said. "My height hinders me, too, and the fact that I look very young. (She is 19, and barely 5-foot-2.) I play a lot of kid's roles."

When Schumacher was growing up, she had her sights set on a career as a ballet dancer and she will use that training during a ballet sequence choreographed for "Carousel."

"I wanted to be a ballerina, but I had to quit pointe work" because her breasts got too big for classical dance, where purity of line is so essential.

Schumacher has no regrets about outgrowing ballet, however. And when asked her about her plans, she displayed the kind of full-throttled enthusiasm she dishes out so effectively before the footlights: "Broadway. Broadway is definitely my goal."

Right now, however, a crack at the big time is still on the horizon for this aspiring star.

"I have to (build) a name first. Then, I'll carry my reviews, and I'll go" to New York, she vowed.

Although Louise in "Carousel" is strictly a minor-league role, as Schumacher pointed out, "There's a lot of dancing in the role. It's quite a different type than the character roles I usually play, and I was a little scared when I first got it."

But does she have what it takes to make Broadway take notice?

Tom White, her director in "Carousel," believes she does.

"She's a tremendous little talent," he said. "We're using her for the long ballet, and she sparkles. She's going to shine in the show."

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