August 1, 2013 | by Patrick Folliard
Helming ‘Chorus’
Stephen Nachamie, theater, Olney Theatre, gay news, Washington Blade

Theater veteran Stephen Nachamie says A Chorus Line calls on ‘great dancers to really act.’ (Photo courtesy of Olney Theatre)

‘A Chorus Line’
Through Sept. 1
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD
$32.50-$65
301-924-3400
olneytheatre.org

Director and choreographer Stephen Nachamie’s connection to the groundbreaking musical “A Chorus Line” is long and heartfelt. Not only has he played several of the characters in tours and regional productions over the years, but he’s also staged a couple versions too.

So when Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jason Loewith called last December asking him to helm their own peek into the joys and struggles of Broadway’s “gypsies,” Nachamie had to give the offer some extra consideration before accepting.

In past Olney seasons, the New York-based Nachamie, who is gay, has had successes with musicals “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Camelot” and “1776,” but to direct “A Chorus Line,” he says he felt an obligation to set the bar extra high.

“To do this right I knew that I needed strong dancers, daring actors and singers who could convincingly move from speech to song. I’d heard D.C. might not have the skill set, but we found a lot of well-trained hardworking honest actors here. We brought some people from New York like Nancy Lemenager and Bryan Knowlton, but three-fourths of the cast are local [including Parker Drown and Sam Edgerly]. ‘A Chorus Line’ calls on great dancers to really act. This is an amazing opportunity for them to show what they can do.”

Crafted from a series of recorded informal talks among working Broadway dancers, “A Chorus Line” tells the story of 17 dancers auditioning for limited spots in a new musical. Standing on a bare stage, the anxious aspirants are asked by an unseen director to talk about themselves. Their compelling stories — told in words by librettists James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante and song from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s Tony Award-winning score — range from amusingly raw to wistfully poignant.

Originally directed and choreographed by the brilliant Michael Bennett, the multiple Tony-winning musical opened on Broadway in the summer of 1975, proving a huge success with critics and theatergoers alike and later won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (not a common feat for a musical).

Nachamie, a native New Yorker who grew up seeing a lot of Broadway musicals (his first was “Grease” at age 4), recalls his introduction to “A Chorus Line”: “I remember first seeing it with my brother and sister. I think I was 12. There were these characters on stage who matter-of-factly said they were gay. It was simply part of their stories. They didn’t slink offstage in shame. I’d never seen anything like that before. It made a big impression.

“With this show, I really want to tell the story of a dancers’ life,” he says. “I’m inspired by Michael Bennett [who died from AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987 at just 44]. His work focused on the characters. The original ‘A Chorus Line’ was all about the actors. The set was a black box with a mirror.  Bennett’s original ‘Dreamgirls’ was a black box with some light towers.”

This production is set in 1975. Somehow a saucy dancer singing about how her career blossomed after the scalpel-wielding “wizard on Park and 73rd” inflated her breasts and booty doesn’t pack the same wallop in cosmetic surgery-jaded 2013, but it’s still a cute number.

Nachamie, 40, looks back on his career to date. As an actor from late adolescence and now a director and writer, he describes the New York theater world as a place where he found acceptance. It’s where he comfortably came out and came of age surrounded by positive role models.

“Some pretty great things and some not so great things are happening for the LGBT community today,” Nachamie says. “It’s important to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going. ‘A Chorus Line’ is about people staking a claim for a dream and putting their hearts and soul on the line for what they want. It reminds us that we’re owed nothing. We have to work for it.”

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