It’s the eve of another opening night at Theatre Memphis, and the stage is bare. No giant set pieces wait in the wings to be rolled into place. The actors, who look as though they’ve come from the gym in their workout clothes, are already in costume.
Known for its elaborate scenery and dazzling wardrobe, Theatre Memphis now looks as if someone has forgotten to put on a show.
‘A Chorus Line’
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 30. Extra shows at 7:30 p.m. March 20 and 27. Theatre Memphis, 630 Perkins Ext. Tickets: Call 901-682-8323.
However, everything is where it should be for “A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Broadway musical famously known for the bareness of its necessities. Except for the final number, the entire musical takes place at an audition for a Broadway musical. Seventeen dancers are campaigning for a handful of roles in the ensemble. The show’s choreographer, Zach,
watches from the audience, provoking the dancers to reveal more than just their moves. He wants to see their souls as well.
The musical helped popularize the idea of a “triple threat” performer — that is, one who can sing, dance and act with equal virtuosity.
Director Josh Walden himself is a “triple threat.” Immediately after graduating from New York University in 1998, the New Hampshire native landed his first paid gig in a touring musical. He’s worked steadily ever since.
In 2007, he was cast as a “vacation swing” in the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line,” meaning he learned a variety of parts to cover for actors who went on vacation.
“It forced me to learn all the different dance numbers,” Walden said. “After I did the show on Broadway, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse (in New York’s Finger Lakes) then asked me to direct their ‘Chorus Line.’ I was very proud of that production.”
Walden has since become part of the show’s tradition of passing down its choreography from dancer to dancer.
The director who taught Walden in the revival, Baayork Lee, had played Connie Wong in the ’75 cast. Her reconstruction of the original show was seen locally in 2009 when the Broadway tour came to the Orpheum theater.
Walden says that he, too, only replicates Michael Bennett’s 1975 choreography.
“It’s so linked to the text and to the emotion,” Walden said. “I’ve seen people try to do new things, but it never really works out.”
Devotion to Bennett’s original work comes partly because many dancers consider the show an homage to themselves.
Bennett, who died at age 44 in 1987, was in his early 30s when he took part in a series of workshops where a group of about three dozen dancers were interviewed on tape about their lives. Their hopes, dreams and search for self-identity are now immortalized in the musical’s book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Their stories inspired Marvin Hamlisch’s classic songs “What I Did for Love,” and “One (Singular Sensation).”
Theatre Memphis’ last production of “A Chorus Line,” in 1999, was directed by one of Bennett’s former dancers, Mitzi Hamilton, whose own workshop interview about getting a breast augmentation contributed to the musical’s character Val. Hamilton later played Val in both the Broadway and London casts of “A Chorus Line.”
Walden says the real influence directors can have on this show is not in the dancing, but in the acting.
“The first day of rehearsal, I tell my actors to stop watching Youtube,” Walden says. “I don’t want them imitating other people. They have to bring their own lives to the stage. They have to be real. I’ve been really floored by this cast at Theatre Memphis.”
Due to a scheduling conflict, Walden had to leave the rehearsal process three weeks before the opening. He handed the reins to assistant director Adam Lendermon, who performed in Theatre Memphis’ 1999 “A Chorus Line” at age 17 before moving to New York to attend college. He still lives in New York, and works in theater.
Lendermon says that real Broadway auditions never play out like the virtual interrogation depicted in the musical.
“Directors have asked me questions, but never probing ones,” Lendermon said. “To me, this is Michael Bennett’s message about humanizing the faceless dancers in the background. He wants people to see them as individuals.”
He adds that being in “A Chorus Line” as a high school senior sparked his own interest in dance.
“It was the show that made me decide I needed to learn how to move,” Lendermon said. “Now I sell myself as a full package — a singer, dancer, actor. I’m not going to sing at the Met, or dance for ABT (American Ballet Theatre). But put all of my assets together, and I am a very strong performer.”
After the show opens, Lendermon will be heading back to New York.
He has to audition for his next job.