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Fort Myers Theatre’s production of “A Chorus Line” goes forward after death of lead actress

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Actress Erin Coleman (in red top) during rehearsal June 11

Fort Myers Theatre is creating ‘one singular sensation’ with their production of the multi-Emmy-winning Broadway show A Chorus Line, and introducing a new generation of performers and audiences to the ground-breaking show. The company is forging ahead, even after the show lost its star, actress Erin Coleman, in a fatal car accident that occurred just a week before opening night.

When A Chorus Line premiered in 1975, theater critics labelled it “experimental.” The show tells the stories of 17 dancers who are auditioning for eight spots in the chorus line of a brand-new Broadway musical. Who will make the cut? Who won’t? That’s the simple storyline – a far cry from the elaborate musicals of that era like Fiddler on the Roof, Mame, and Man of La Mancha.

This makes A Chorus Line special in the annals of musical theater, and actress Erin Coleman was excited for a new generation of singers, dancers and actors to experience the groundbreaking show.

“I’ve explained to them it was so important at the time. It doesn’t have a set plot like a typical singing-dancing musical theater show. The plot is basically just the dancers talking about their lives,” said Coleman.

“So, when it came out in the 70s it was so iconic and became an important part of musical theater history because of that, in that it is based on true stories and it is based on real people. Being able to see that part of history would be a reason to come see it.”

A Chorus Line was also remarkable because of the unconventional themes it addressed. It was one of the first Broadway shows to draw attention to the challenges faced by gay performers in a heterocentric world. It also lampooned the bias in the entertainment industry in favor of pretty girls who have that perfectly proportioned female body, as the show’s famed composer Marvin Hamlisch chides with “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.”

Flat and sassy, I would get the strays and losers. Beggars really can't be choosers. That ain't it, kid. That ain't it, kid.

Fised the chassis. "How do you do!" Life turned into and Endless medley of "Gee it had to be you!" Why?

Tits and ass! Where the cupboard once was bare Now you knock and someone's there.

On a deeper, more profound level, A Chorus Line is about having and pursuing a dream. Michael Blevins, who played Mark Anthony in the 1985 film starring Michael Douglas, makes this observation:

“It’s really just about anybody who, you know, has a dream and is seeking it, and what you have to go through to get a dream.”

The dancers we meet in A Chorus Line dream of escaping their sometimes ordinary, often painful and unsupportive family lives by finding a home on Broadway. Their ticket out is dance. The 17 aspirants the audience meets love the dance, and Coleman said they’ll do just about anything to dance professionally.

“You have singing and acting, but the dance is almost another character of the show. I mean it’s such an important part, and the love of the dance is really what the entire show is about,” said Coleman.

“It’s about people whose one true passion and that’s what they’re here for. So, it’s very key, it’s very important and I know that Michelle (Director and Choreographer Michelle Kuntze) has worked very hard to make sure that that stays the main theme of the show. It is about the dancing so you know we’re doing our best.”

The musical’s very first number makes it clear that there’s an economic side to pursuing that dream. Each of the Broadway chorus wannabes has to pay their rent. Not just their dues as singers, dancers and actors, but the rent for their flats and apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. That’s one reason Director and Choreographer Michelle Kuntze flew in her mentor and former teacher Michael Blevins to workshop with her cast.

“These people in this play need to pay their rent. It isn’t about let’s be in a play, it’ll be fun and glamorous. No, it’s you need to pay your rent and you have to eat, so you need to get this show. ‘God, I hope I get this, I really need this job.’ That’s really what it’s about,” said Blevins.

“These people are young, most of them, I think, teenagers and stuff who haven’t been out on their own yet.”

Of course, there’s an exception to every rule and in Chorus Line that exception is Cassie Ferguson. Cassie made it past the chorus to become a principal, but then left Broadway for Hollywood to pursue a career in film.

“It didn’t quite work out the way she expected, so she’s back in New York and humbling herself to come before her ex-boyfriend, who’s the director of the show and to see if she can get a spot back in the chorus line with the dancers,” said Coleman.

The director, Zach, is played by Parrish Danesh who last appeared for Fort Myers Theatre in the role of Gomez Addams.

“He genuinely does care about what happens to these people. They can’t all make the show, but he wants to see which ones he thinks can in the end act and work together as that team, as that ensemble,” said Danesh.

Zach especially cares about Cassie.

“Cassie clearly just wants to be in that chorus,” said Danesh.

“Zach is thinking, ‘No, you should be the star. You should be big. You can do all this. Why don’t you go further?’ But, Cassie’s happy being with that team and in the end, I think Zach wants her to be happy, and lets her join the chorus.”

By the end of the show, audiences too will care about what happens to each of the characters. They’ve all been compelled to make sacrifices to pursue their dream of dancing professionally: The voice and dance lessons, the tense heart-pounding auditions, long hours memorizing and running lines, and even longer hours in rehearsal.

It’s what they do for love.

Love is never gone

As we travel on

Love's what we'll remember

Kiss today goodbye

And point me toward tomorrow

Point me toward tomorrow

We did what we had to do

Won't forget, can't regret

What I did for love what I did for love

It’s what Erin Coleman did for love. Sadly, however, she won’t be in the chorus line when you see the show. After workshopping with Blevins and several hours of rehearsal, Erin hopped in her car Saturday night, drove down Daniels Parkway and then headed north on I-75 toward her home and husband in Punta Gorda. Moments later, she was hit head on by a motorist traveling southbound who lost control of his pickup and crossed the median. She was airlifted to Gulf Coast Medical Center, but died from her injuries, June 16.

Coleman felt a keen affinity for Cassie Ferguson. She had a special bond with her young cast mates, who reinvigorated her by reminding her what it was like to be their age, facing limitless possibilities. And she was adamant about giving new audiences of every age and background the chance to enjoy this special show.

Cassie is the only character in the play who isn’t given an audition number. So, when you go to the show, wear the number one – for Erin Coleman and the song she would have performed in the finale of A Chorus Line.

One singular sensation, every little step she takes One thrilling combination, every move that she makes One smile and suddenly nobody else will do You know you'll never be lonely with you-know-who

One moment in her presence and you can forget the rest For the girl is second best to none, son Oooh! Sigh! Give her your attention Do I really have to mention she's the one

A Chorus Line is at Fort Myers Theatre June 18 - 26. Saturday performances are at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday performances are at 2 p.m., and weekday performances begin at 7 p.m.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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