If you’re a theater-lover in search of a quick summer getaway, consider taking a trip out to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley, PA, less than two hours west of NYC along Route 78.
Founded in 1992, and based in the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of DeSales University, the non-profit PSF – a leading Shakespeare theater and one of the top summer theater festivals in the US, with a national reputation for excellence – not only produces work from The Bard’s canon, but also musicals, classics, and contemporary plays, many of which can be seen in rep on multiple stages in a single overnight visit or over a long weekend. Productions by the award-winning company include world-class veterans of Broadway, film, and TV, and winners and nominees of the Tony, Emmy, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Jefferson, Hayes, Lortel, and Barrymore awards.
Among this month’s must-see musical offerings, featuring the work of acclaimed NYC-based theater artists, are a top-notch production of the iconic long-running Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit A Chorus Line (originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with music by Marvin Hamlisch), with direction and choreography by Luis Villabon (Peter Pan; Seussical the Musical; A Chorus Line) and music direction by Andy Peterson (Tootsie; GRINDR: The Opera; The World to Come), and the return of Broadway’s Dan Domenech (Heathers; Rock of Ages; Smokey Joe’s Cafe) – who, in addition to playing his popular “Bootleg Famous” concert there, also starred as Che in the PSF production of Evita – for a new one-night-only show, with music and stories spanning his 20-year career.
I spoke with Luis, Andy, and Dan in advance of their openings about their association with PSF and what audiences can expect in their shows.
What do you have in store for us with your new one-man cabaret concert?
Dan: A lot has changed over the past few years, and I’m at a place now where I just want to sing songs I really enjoy. I’ve been singing with symphonies around the country, performing on cruise ships, and touring with Broadways Rock of Ages Band, so this concert will be a lot of rock songs and ballads from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In between the numbers I’ll be talking about the state of the world and where I am now in my life and career. I like to really connect with the audience personally rather than rattle off my cv.
What is it about A Chorus Line that makes it such a time-honored classic?
Luis: I believe the audience sees themselves reflected in the characters, since they’re based on real lives; some roles are an amalgam of more than one person. The show is an audition for hopeful Broadway chorus dancers, who have very specific reasons for wanting to land a coveted spot on the chorus line for a new show. Who can’t relate to wanting to get a job, having to audition/interview for it, and ultimately, being able to work at and love what you do? Michael Bennett intended for audiences to see themselves in the mirror, not only literally, but figuratively as well.
Andy: Because A Chorus Line was created from real stories of real people within the industry, the piece feels like a peak behind the curtain for the general public to see a little of the process of how a Broadway musical is created. The stories are unfiltered, raw, ugly, funny, and devastating, and I agree that everyone is able to see a little of themselves in at least one of the characters on that stage. On top of that, Marvin Hamlisch’s phenomenal score weaves a musical tapestry around each character that tugs at your heartstrings and tickles your funny bone.
Will this current production adhere closely to the original or have you made some changes?
Luis: We’re absolutely adhering to the original. My first professional director/choreographer and mentor is Baayork Lee, who played Connie in the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line. She was also Michael Bennett’s dance captain and contributed to the choreography. I’m thrilled to be re-staging this production with my understanding of Michael Bennett’s original direction and choreography. I think it’s important to keep the flame of Michael’s genius and concepts alive, and to pass them on from generation to generation. If I do my job well, perhaps someone in this cast will be among the next keepers of the flame.
Andy: Luis and his associate David Grindrod are A Chorus Line specialists and have put so much effort into bringing the original choreography and staging to life. You can expect to see those signature Michael Bennett shapes executed so precisely by our insanely talented cast of wonderful humans while they belt out those gorgeous Mavin Hamlisch harmonies. It’s been such a pleasure and a privilege to watch Luis and David work their magic on this show.
Is there one number that’s your absolute favorite that you can’t wait to share with the audience?
Dan: The opening number, of course! I’m not going to tell you what it is, so you’ll be surprised, but it’s the one ‘90s song in the show. Well not exactly ‘90s, but it came out in the ‘90s. It’s one of those tunes I listened to in my room when I was eighteen and I’d have the album on repeat and just go crazy jumping around to it, play the CD on repeat with my friends in the car. It makes me feel like I’m a kid again!
Luis: Gosh, that’s a hard question when it comes to A Chorus Line! If I’m forced to choose, I would say “At the Ballet.” It was apparently the first song that was written for the musical. Even after my 31-year relationship with the show professionally, it still strikes such a strong emotional chord with me. It’s sung by three women who’ve had difficulties in their early family lives and who find solace and refuge in the beautiful world of ballet. When most people think of A Chorus Line, they tend to remember the finale, with its glitzy champagne-colored costumes, so it’s wonderful to be able to present an impactful song like “At the Ballet.”
Andy: While most people do love to gravitate towards songs like the iconic “One” – and “At the Ballet” is so beautiful – my favorite moment of the show is “Music and the Mirror.” This song really captures the desire and heartache of a performer who just wants to do what they love and make a living from it. The music starts so heartbreakingly tender and soft as Cassie asks Zach for a job, and the more we delve into her desire for this job, the bigger it gets, until Cassie has no option other than to let it all out in a five-minute dance break while the music builds and crescendos to epic proportions. It’s absolutely exhilarating. And wait until you see the EXTRAORDINARY Sissy Bell bare her soul in this iconic dance accompanied by our fantastic fourteen-piece orchestra!
What are you enjoying most about working with PSF?
Luis: It’s my first time working here, and I’m really enjoying the cast and crew. PSF has been very generous in allowing me to do some recasting, since the show was originally scheduled for 2020, with another director/choreographer team, and was postponed during the pandemic. We invited everyone who had been cast for the 2020 production to a recasting call. I believe there are only three cast members from the 2020 auditions that are presently in this production. As you can imagine, many peoples’ lives changed during the shutdown; some previously cast actors had babies, left the business, etc. The PSF team worked tirelessly, up until the last minute in some cases, to make sure we had the right performers for this production. And we really do have a perfect cast! It might actually be the strongest one I’ve ever been connected to, including James Harkness (with Broadway credits in Aida, Beautiful, and Ain’t Too Proud) as Zach, Sissy Bell (from Broadway’s Tootsie and Anastasia) as Cassie, and Patrick Higgins (who played Baby John in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story), as Mark. I was also able to bring in my preferred Production Stage Manager (Randy Lawson), Lighting Designer (Richard Latta), Music Director (Andy Peterson), and Associate Choreographer (David Grindrod). So I’m grateful to have such a powerful team here and I’m honored to be a guardian of the legacy of A Chorus Line. I can’t wait to see it on stage!
Andy: I think the best part about working with PSF is their commitment to finding the best talent around and creating an environment for this talent to do what they do best. The management here has been nothing but helpful and welcoming and they have created a space for us to tell stories that we are passionate about to an audience who loves to hear them.
Dan: They’re very loyal. I sang at their gala and saw everyone again and even ran into one of my old castmates from Evita, who became a big star on Broadway doing Dear Evan Hansen. It’s great to see old faces. Plus Nathan Diehl is the Music Director for my concert and he makes it so easy. I just hand him my music and it’s fine. He takes care of everything, I don’t have to do anything but focus on my performance. And I have a full killer band this time, so the show is just about good music, having fun on stage, and the audience having a good time!
Many thanks to all of you for making the time during your busy rehearsal schedule to give our readers a preview of your shows. I’m already booked for the weekend and can’t wait to see you there!
A Chorus Line plays Wednesday, June 22-Sunday, July 10, 2022, on the Main Stage, at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA. For tickets (priced at $30-63), go online. Everyone must wear a mask at all times when inside the theater.
Dan Domenech in Concert plays on Monday, June 27, 2022, at 7:30 pm, on the Main Stage, at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA. For tickets (priced at $25-46), go online. Everyone must wear a mask at all times when inside the theater.