After more than six decades a new era is dawning at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park with the opening of Moe and Jack’s Place – The Rouse Theatre, a new mainstage for the renowned regional theater. A Chorus Line, the monster Broadway hit and 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, will be the first production there.
According to Blake Robison, the Playhouse’s producing artistic director who’s staging the show about 17 dancers competing for a role in a new Broadway musical and baring their souls during auditions, it’s the perfect production for this moment. In a recent interview with CityBeat, he said, “A Chorus Line is a musical about theater and the people who make it. It celebrates the theater building itself, it celebrates the artists onstage, it celebrates what’s onstage, it celebrates everything that it takes to follow one’s dreams and make something new.”
The show was suggested by Moe Rouse, the lead benefactor of the new facility alongside her husband, Jack Rouse. Robison recalled that Moe suggested A Chorus Line. “As soon as she said it, it was like the clouds parted, and I just went, ‘Ah, that’s the perfect show.’” Not only is it all about why people do theater, he added, “It’s exactly the kind of show that we could not do in the Marx Theatre. It’s a show that’s built for a proscenium stage (a deeper, arched stage). They spend 70% of the show in a straight line.”
It also seemed the right show emerging from the pandemic. “There was literally no work for actors for two years,” Robison mentioned. “When they sing, ‘God, I hope I get it! I really need this job!’ you know it means something today that we didn’t even understand five years ago.” In an early rehearsal, one actor tearfully shared that she hadn’t worked in three years. “I’m so happy to be here,” she exclaimed, according to Robison.
The Rouse Theatre, the centerpiece of the Playhouse’s $50-million mainstage theater complex, is the only new theater from the ground up and opening in the U.S. in 2023, according to a press release. Replacing the 50-year-old Marx Theatre and its outmoded thrust stage, the Rouse’s proscenium configuration with an overhead “fly house” enabling set pieces to be lifted up or lowered into place, means increased options for set design and more partnerships with other theater companies.
With 537 seats on three levels, better sightlines and a balcony overhanging the lower level, more theatergoers can be close to the Rouse Theatre’s stage. (In some cases, like during the run of A Chorus Line, there will only be 510 open seats available since some in the front row can be removed to extend the "apron" of the stage). The complex has an expansive new lobby space with an abundance of windows. Behind the scenes are new rehearsal spaces, a spacious costume shop, more dressing rooms and a comfortable “Green Room” lounge for actors with windows overlooking Eden Park.
Robison’s production has updated Chorus Line’s concept. “It’s pretty rare these days for anyone to audition in an empty Broadway theater,” Robison pointed out. “It was more common back in 1975. Nowadays there are studios peppered all over New York City for auditions and rehearsals. To really give a sense of what it’s like literally to be there in the room with the nerves and the sweat and the anticipation and everything, we now start this production of A Chorus Line in the studio. Over the course of the show, as we get deeper and deeper into it, that studio starts to disappear. In the end, you are in the mythic, empty theater space that we all think of when we think of A Chorus Line.”
Robison and choreographer Alex Sanchez were granted permission to develop for the first time new choreography for the production. “Alex has brought a freshness and a passion and a style that is more contemporary. He says that dancers are trained differently now. They are in the conservatory from a very, very young age, and they are stronger and more skilled, in the same way that athletes are bigger and stronger now.” Sanchez worked with renowned Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, Robison mentioned, “so there’s a little bit more sizzle and a bit less standard ’60s and ’70s musical theater dancing.”
A Chorus Line broke Broadway records with its legendary long run from 1975 to 1990. It was revived in 2006. Might the Playhouse’s production find its way to Broadway? Robison said, “We’re aiming for something that will be fresh and relevant to today’s artists. Of course, we would be thrilled and very open to whatever the next step might be.” He mentioned a recent conversation with Broadway star Donna McKechnie, winner of a Tony Award when she originated the role of Cassie back in 1976. She told Robison, “The word’s out. Everybody knows about this production. Everybody’s eager to see what you’re making down there.”
Robison’s cast includes Drew Lachey as Zach, the director who’s deciding the fate of the dancers. Lachey is a Cincinnati native and a singer (he was a member of the boy band 98 Degrees) with extensive Broadway experience.
“He’s got chops, that combination of someone who’s really experienced, just the right age and stature to bring something special to Zach,” Robison says.
For the Playhouse’s production, Shiloh Goodin steps into the Cassie role. She was in Paradise Square last season on Broadway. “I was just blown away by her in the auditions,” says Robison. “She has that thing that great performers can’t train for but seem to exude. When she is onstage you can’t take your eyes off of her.”
Tickets for A Chorus Line have been selling rapidly. Robison reported that the first weeks of the five-week run are nearly sold out. The show can’t be extended, since August Wilson’s Seven Guitars comes in as of April 23.
Robison also reminded theatergoers that Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady opens in the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre on March 25. “It’s very easy for a smaller Shelterhouse show to get overshadowed by A Chorus Line and the new building. The Shelterhouse was also part of this renovation project.” Suh’s play is the story of Afong Moy, supposedly the first Chinese woman to step foot on U.S. soil in 1834.
A Chorus Line, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, opens its new mainstage in Eden Park, Moe and Jack’s Place – The Rouse Theater, on March 16. It will continue through April 15. More info: cincyplay.com.
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