Urbana High School (UHS) plays a big role—three, in fact—in The Fredericktowne Players’ (FtP) production of “A Chorus Line.” Staffer Stephen Ward and 2015 graduate Prince Mills are actors and class of 2011 alumnus Matt Dohm is the music director and conductor.
The original 1975 Broadway musical won nine Tony Awards as well as the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set on the bare stage of a Broadway theater during an audition for a musical, 17 dancers are trying out for spots on a chorus line.
FtP’s Director Chris Berry, also the principal of Frederick’s Tuscarora High School, said he is “just old enough to remember when this was THE show that everyone was talking about, much like ‘Hamilton’ today.” His assessment: It “fundamentally changed the notion of what a Broadway musical could be.”
Berry observed that the work’s “interview, reality TV-style is a staple for us today, but was fairly groundbreaking in 1975. The show’s core theme revolves around what it means to be a performer—the struggles, the joys, the anxieties and the hope. And at its heart, ‘A Chorus Line’ is a toe-tapping dance show, with iconic numbers such as ‘What I Did for Love,’ ‘I Can Do That’ and ‘One.’”
In his role as Zach, the director of the audition, Stephen Ward, as UHS’ director of theater, is playing to type. It is his first show with FtP, “and only the second time I’ve ever done a community show. I am usually too busy with directing and teaching,” he said.
Because he loves “A Chorus Line” for “its message and its heart,” Ward felt compelled to “take a chance” on the role. He has seen the show “multiple times,” including a front-row seat at the 2006 revival production.
Ward appreciates the “interesting perspective of being back in the actor’s role—being directed again.” And he values the experience “because it reminds me what my students go through: the audition process, being an actor, memorizing all those lines.” It also brings back fond memories, of his own Brunswick High School Theater Department years when he acted in mainstage shows and served as club president.
That the actor and his character are both directors may be the only correspondence between them. “My students often say I have a loud, booming voice, so it has been a challenge for me to pull back and be this quiet, intimidating voice,” Ward said, noting that he “likes to call” Zach “The Voice from the Back of the Auditorium” because that is the character’s location much of the time.
When he was a UHS student, Matt Dohm immersed himself in musical opportunities, including bands (jazz, marching, pit, symphonic) and choir (concert, chamber, show) as well as musical shows. He has worked with FtP since its summer 2017 production of “Hairspray,” which he vocal music directed, followed by “Into the Woods” and “Company.”
“A Chorus Line,” he said, “is one of my favorite theatrical productions. My taste in musicals leans toward pieces portraying real people dramatizing the human condition in a realistic lens. … An opportunity for the rest of the world to peek into ‘the process’ for the people in the shows they watch, it’s unique and oddly cathartic.”
Dohm described “A Chorus Line’s” musical score as “a phenomenal treat to play; a rare occasion that the orchestrations are harder to play than the vocal music is to sing—likely due to the incredible amount of dancing going on.”
He invites audience members “to take in the moments during the prolonged impressive dance breaks, and listen for the intricacies of the instrumentation. There’s so much color and texture there, shaping what the dancers feel in their beats.”
Dohm said he is “mostly staying true to score,” while “adjusting several things in my conductorship.” For example, “Tempos are being chosen based on a combination of what sounds good for the song, and what’s realistic for the stage. … I take into account not only the personality of the soloist in question … but (also) the feasibility of being sung and danced to at the same time.” Also, “pulses and beats are being slightly reangled to create a more ‘clockwork’ flow to the many pauses/breaths/restarts the show has.”
He has trained his orchestra “on what lines to listen for, how many pulses to expect in-between pauses, and actor-habits to adjust for inconsistencies,” Dohm explained. “I then can act as a gentle guide, with everybody’s awareness and expectations on the same page.”
“A Chorus Line,” is Prince Mills’ first FtP show. At UHS, he took part in productions including “Curtain” (2014) and “The Velveteen Rabbit” (2015); now he is studying theater at Frederick Community College and apprenticing at Maryland Ensemble Theatre.
Mills said his role, Frank, known as “headband boy,” is “fun to play,” despite his disappointment in the character being cut first at the audition. “I wish he had a future in this show. … I hope he gets over his nervousness of being judged when he dances, (that he) keeps his head up and performs his little heart out in another show.”
Nevertheless, the experience, Mills said, has been “eye opening. … I just love seeing my fellow castmates peel the layers off their characters, seeing their vulnerable sides. It’s so refreshing and inspiring that there is a show about the experiences of performers, too. It makes me feel understood and seen.”
The Fredericktowne Players present “A Chorus Line” at 8 p.m. Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 9, and 2 p.m. Feb 3 and 10 at the Jack Kussmaul Theater on FCC Campus, 7932 Opossumtown Pike, Frederick. For tickets, $20, visit showtix4u.com or call 240.315.3855.