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After 22 Years, Show Still Has Legs

Theater: The confessional tone of 'A Chorus Line,' coming to Cerritos, hasn't lost its crowd appeal.

May 12, 1997|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — After "A Chorus Line" premiered in 1975, could anyone continue to look at Broadway's rank-and-file hoofers merely as scenery with good legs?

The musical showed that each individual in every chorus line has a story, a living photo album of dreams and regrets, loves and fears.

The tall one on the left? That's Sheila, who found at the ballet the light she lacked at home. The pony-tailed blond is Kristine, tone deaf but inseparable from her uxorious spouse, Al, who keeps her on key. The swarthy boy is Paul, who, at 15, walked into the principal's office at his Catholic high school and announced, "I'm a homosexual."

Today, self-revelation is fodder for prime-time comedy as well as talk shows where stars and unknowns alike come out at noon.

But in 1975, "A Chorus Line's" confessionals constituted theatrical innovation. The Pulitzer Prize winner went on to run for 15 years and more than 6,000 performances on Broadway, and continues, even in the Oprah era, to pack houses.

Box office for a new national touring production, opening Tuesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, has averaged 80% of capacity since September's opening, tour officials say. By late last week, the Cerritos Center has sold about 75% of the seats available for its eight-performance run.

What's behind the lasting appeal?

" 'A Chorus Line' is based on real peoples' lives," says Baayork Lee, the touring production's director and one of those real people. She was among a group of Broadway gypsies assembled by Michael Bennett, the show's original director-choreographer, to talk about life in tights. Those rap sessions were fashioned into a musical, with composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban and writers Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood assisting Bennett.

Lee's outpourings gave birth to the character Connie, who says during the show's make-believe audition that her adolescent wish was to be taller.

"I'm 4-foot-10," she said in a phone interview from her Manhattan home, "and I wanted to be a ballerina" with a troupe that preferred long-limbed dancers. "I was devastated."

Jill Slyter plays Cassie in the new touring production, reprising for the 11th time the featured role for which Donna McKechnie won one of the show's record-setting 10 Tonys. Slyter calls the musical a period piece, what with its '70s-style wah-wah guitar licks and pre-AIDS reality.

But, while warming up before curtain during the tour's recent Seattle stop, she said there's nothing dated about the pangs of puberty, referring to a montage about growing up.

"God, who didn't go through high school wanting tits?" she said, "I know I did."

Bennett (who died of AIDS in 1987) experimented with updating certain lines, Slyter said, but eventually abandoned the effort and returned to the original version.

"The [revised] script just wasn't working anymore," she said. "The coolest thing is that it works as it is."

Pulling a Redskins sweatshirt over her head, the sloe-eyed Slyter speaks to a reporter with candor. No energy for pretense. Lying supine on her dressing room floor, she remains in the splits to answer the question of how she keeps doing the same role over and over. She's just finished appearing as Cassie for the 1,000th time.

"I have no idea," she said, shaking her head. "I've tried to stop a bunch of times, but. . . . All I know is when I'm not onstage, I'm miserable and when I'm onstage, I'm as happy as can be."

She chuckles at the reporter's assumption that the ring on her left hand is a wedding band. Nope--that's her female lover there, she says, pointing to photos tacked to her portable wardrobe. A small TV nests inside the plywood "road box." It's tuned to "Mad About You," but she likes "The Simpsons" too.

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Christina Marie Norrup, on her third "Chorus Line," could have written the lyrics from "I Hope I Get It," one of many numbers she sings. The song's will-I-or-won't-I anxiety has been part of every audition she's endured, including the one for this production, she said.

"I was totally shocked," she said. "What was there, like 500 other people auditioning? I was absolutely ecstatic to be part of a national tour."

As Judy, Norrup doesn't have a solo, but she's an understudy for Cassie. As a warm-up exercise, she and Slyter "Cassify," running through the character's tour de force song-and-dance solo from the top.

After doing so in Seattle, they squatted like frogs, panting, to talk about holding a painfully long, climactic note just when the breath is in shortest supply.

"I know it's different with the lights and the audience," Slyter said, "but you can do this. Just emote." Said Norrup: "I know it's somewhere in me." Exactly how long must this note be held, the reporter asks. Slyter, moments away from show time, refuses to count. "I'm afraid to tell you because I might freak myself out."

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