Preview: Director of CLO's 'A Chorus Line' says the show 'has always been something to aspire to'
Grant Turner as Zach and Nadine Isenegger as Cassie return to roles they've done on Broadway and national tours for Pittsburgh CLO's "A Chorus Line."
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The little bundle of energy that is Baayork Lee, the original Connie in "A Chorus Line" and director of the show that opens the Pittsburgh CLO season, spreads her arms to indicate "these are my babies" seated on either side of her in the company's conference room.
To her left is Nadine Isenegger, who graduated from Point Park University in 1992 and earned her Equity card in the CLO ensemble before hitting Broadway as Peggy Sawyer in "42nd Street" and Val in "A Chorus Line." To Ms. Lee's right is Australian Grant Turner, who earned his green card the same week he won a role in the 2008 Broadway revival of the show, whose original run was 15 years, starting in 1975.
Ms. Lee, an ageless 65, was there from the very beginning and continues traveling the globe with productions of "A Chorus Line," including directing Pittsburgh CLO's production at the Benedum Center. She became a disciple of "A Chorus Line" creator Michael Bennett as his assistant choreographer and as the diminutive Connie.
"Everyone's been handpicked; it's a wonderful company," she said of her "babies" at CLO. "The show means so many different things to different people, and they are coming back to this in Pittsburgh for different reasons."
Ms. Lee grew up under the wing of the show's creator and refers to the late Bennett's mentorship often, explaining, "He gave me the keys to keep." The enduring nature of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical owes much to the voyeuristic look at the audition process, a case of art imitating life, the introduction of "triple threats" (actor/dancer/singer all in one performer), the emotional revelations of auditioners "who really need this job" and the Marvin Hamlisch score, tailor-fit to individual characters.
Even when Bennett came to the company in 1977, two years into its run, and told the original cast it was time to move on, he sent Ms. Lee off to Stockholm, Japan and Berlin to mount companies.
She was a presence for Ms. Isenegger and Mr. Turner, growing up continents apart, as they experienced the show before joining the line. The show Mr. Turner first saw in the 1990s was Ms. Lee's second Australian company.
" 'A Chorus Line' has always been something to aspire to," Mr. Turner said. "We used to dance to the music at my dance school. I used to perform monologues in the bathroom mirror growing up. It's always been in my life. To think I'm doing this now with Baayork, it's crazy."
Ms. Isenegger has seen only the movie version before she won her role as an understudy, but like Mr. Turner, she grew up with the original soundtrack, including Ms. Lee as Connie, in her head.
"I had the recording and I still have it. That yellow-gold cover that folded out and had the whole line and the two records. So I listened to that and back then, the songs were on the radio."
Both actors have done other Broadway roles. Ms. Isenegger took over the role of Peggy Sawyer (you know the one: "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!") in the revival of "42nd Street." Mr. Turner danced in the ensemble and as the older Billy in "Billy Elliot."
But like Ms. Lee, they keep coming back to "A Chorus Line." Mr. Turner won a spot in the ensemble in his first New York audition. "The line went out the door and down 42nd Street and around the corner, and it was pouring down rain, and I remember standing there in that line thinking, this is hopeless. There's no way this could happen to me."
The actors' chemistry comes easily as he reprises Zach, one of several roles he's played in the show, opposite Ms. Isenegger. Mr. Turner recalls becoming a fan when he went on his own to see "42nd Street," his favorite show, and Ms. Isenegger spotted him in a choreographed piece by a mutual friend. "And every time the tall guy came out I was like, ooooooh, who is that?" Mr. Turner also has worked with Ms. Isenegger's husband, Greg Graham, who was the dance captain for "Billy Elliot."
Playing Cassie, a demanding role known for its six-minute dance number, "The Music and the Mirror," is a departure from Val, who has to deliver the humor in "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three."
"Those are the two roles that speak to me, so I'm grateful I've gotten to do them so many times," Ms. Isenegger said. "They are so different, so I get to use different sides of who I am."
Ms. Lee has stretched as a director, choreographer and educator over the years, with Washington Opera and the National Asian Artists Project, among other projects. But she was positively gleeful pointing out Mr. Turner's accomplishments and talking about how far Ms. Isenegger has come in the years since she first cast her in "A Chorus Line."
"She's on the stage for 12 minutes with the scene, but right after she did Cassie in the national tour, she went in to do '42nd Street' and Peggy Sawyer, and I was like a mother, 'My baby's on the stage!' She invited me for opening night, so yes, to have her come back and to see her, she's the right age now. She was younger then. I think we understand the show much better as we become older."
While returning to Pittsburgh CLO is a homecoming for Ms. Isenegger, it's all new to Mr. Turner, who said when he told people he had a job in Pittsburgh, "every single person, you could see the excitement in their faces for me, because they said it's an awesome place to work." Ms. Isenegger said the Pittsburgh CLO spoiled her as her first professional experience. "I left Pittsburgh when I graduated thinking that all regional theater was like this, and it's not. Coming back and just seeing the facility we get to work in and the people we get to work with, it's just amazing."
One thing that's different about the trio sharing their experiences of the company -- there are no complaints or anxieties about the short time schedule for mounting a CLO show.
"I guess maybe because everyone has done the show and done it recently, you're very trusting of everyone because, like, yesterday's rehearsal, that was new for me," Ms. Isenegger said. "We did the alternative scene and you knew everyone and what they were thinking and it was so much fun and I've never had that with you before."
"It's almost like we can go deeper because we all know the piece," Mr. Turner said to nods all around. "There's time to talk about things we never get to talk about that we couldn't do if it was the first time for everyone."
Ms. Lee said taking time to explore Bennett's philosophies is an experience of any "A Chorus Line" she directs. She's been all over the world with the show, most recently taking a London company to Tel Aviv, and said the two places she'd like to see it done are Russia and China.
She thinks holdup of approval in those countries is due to the monologue by the character of Paul, who reveals he is gay. A bit shocking in its day, it's almost as shocking today to hear that it is still a sticking point elsewhere in the world.
"Michael Bennett created the show for us, for all of us who are in the business and have to go in to audition or for anyone who has to have an interview," she said. "When I first started, he said, 'I want everyone to leave my auditions with something. I want you to give something of yourself to the people who are auditioning, especially the ones who are not going to get the job.' So we are out there. We are just ripping it up."
Listening intently, Ms. Isenegger turns to Ms. Lee and says, "You are such a good passer of the torch. It's been 11 years now, and I came into that [rehearsal] room and there were things I thought I couldn't remember and then I started to remember and I thought, that's because she put it in me."
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 am