Donna Drake likes the creative freedom she is given when working at Maine State Music Theatre. Executive director Steven Peterson allows her all the latitude she needs to ruffle feathers, if she so desires.

But for the season-opening “A Chorus Line,” Drake remains true to the vision of director Michael Bennett, who won a Tony Award for his work on the original Broadway production of this landmark musical. Drake was part of the original cast, and worked closely with Bennett developing the show.

“I am doing the original version as I learned it from Michael,” she said during a rehearsal break last week. “It is such a marvelous show, I am not changing one beat of it. I am giving complete homage to his brilliance.”

The Maine State production of “A Chorus Line” opened Wednesday and runs through June 23 at Bowdoin College’ Pickard Theater in Brunswick.

Bennett, who died in 1987, won seven Tonys and was nominated for another 11. He was a Broadway icon: In addition to his director’s work on “A Chorus Line,” he also choreographed “Follies” and “Company,” and directed “Dreamgirls.”

Drake worked with Bennett when “A Chorus Line” was workshopped before opening on Broadway in 1975, and spent two more years dancing in the show after it opened. In all, she has appeared in nine Broadway shows, and appeared or directed in more than a dozen versions of “A Chorus Line.”

“It is like nothing I have ever experienced,” she said. “In 1975, dancers were not allowed to have lives on stage. They were faceless people beyond Carol Channing or Debbie Reynolds. Michael brought them downstage and said, ‘Who are you?’ He gave us a voice. Thanks to Michael, dancers finally got the chance to talk and sing.”

“A Chorus Line” offers insight into the lives of 19 dancers auditioning for a spot in a chorus line. The story hinges on the director, who asks the performers to introduce themselves.

As they come forward to talk, they tell their stories. All the characters overcome obstacles to get to this point in their lives and careers, and all are bonded by their commitment to follow their dream for the chance to perform on Broadway.

Drake, who directed last year’s Maine State version of “The Wiz,” is working with Michael Gorman on the Maine State production. While Drake directs the show, Gorman teaches the dancers the choreography.

“A Chorus Line” changed Drake’s life. It opened the door for her life in theater.

“I always say to people, ‘A Chorus Line’ is two hours and 10 minutes of nothing but truth,” she said. “Every single spoken word, every single lyric, is based on some dancer’s story that was part of the original workshops or the original taping sessions. Those are all our words.”

If “A Chorus Line” opened the door, then Bennett’s inspiration showed her the way.

“Michael, wow, I wish he were here. I would beg to work with him again. To say the man was a genius is an understatement,” she said. “But he was tough. He was hard on us. I do not know if he was a brilliant director or a brilliant psychotherapist. We were divinely manipulated, but not in a negative way. I should say divinely guided. He was hard on us, but, boy, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Netanel Bellaishe, who plays the role of Mike in the Maine State production, said “A Chorus Line” offers endless inspiration.

“The legacy of ‘A Chorus Line’ is very important to me, as it conveys a very personal peek into the lives of dancers from various backgrounds,” Bellaishe replied in an e-mail. “Different as we may be from one another, we all share a few things in common: The gift, the passion, the desire to perform and the sacrifice we all willingly take upon us being artists.”

Added dancer Taylor Mathew Collins, “This show was not only my first tour, which already make it a special show for me, but it was also the story that all performers can relate to. … To tell this story again is an honor.”

The cast includes several performers who have toured nationally and internationally with “A Chorus Line.” Drake called it her “dream line. I don’t know how I got so lucky this time around. I got all of my first choices. No one turned down the gig.

“Maine State has an amazing reputation, and people want to be here. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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